Assessing Rio Risks: A Conversation With USEF Director of Sport Will Connell

Deodoro Olympic Park during the Official Test Event, August, 2015. Ph. Raphael Maeck/FEI
Deodoro Olympic Park during the Official Test Event, August, 2015. Ph. Raphael Maeck/FEI
Deodoro Olympic Park during the Official Test Event, August, 2015. Ph. Raphael Maeck/FEI

With less than two months to go before Opening Ceremonies, attention is focused on Rio de Janeiro and its preparations to welcome millions of visitors from around the world this August. But as Brazil has faced myriad problems that have transformed its country since it was first chosen to host these Olympics ten years ago, in 2006, the Road to Rio has been marked by grave uncertainty swirling among daily news of Brazil’s political instability, safety and disease risk.

Within equestrian sports the question of readiness is more complicated, requiring extensive logistics to successfully transport and host the world’s most elite equine athletes. Owners with horses in contention for Olympic selection have understandably been concerned, but it wasn’t until this week that one owner chose to speak out publicly, in this editorial published June 20, 2016, on

When we were contacted by USEF Director of Sport Programs Will Connell to put a response on record, we welcomed the chance to learn more about the process of preparing for Rio 2016. A native of Great Britain, Connell worked with Team GBR’s high performance program for 11 years, through its London effort that saw all three British disciplines lead the world at the same time, and previously served for 17 years in the Royal Horse Artillery and as Commanding Officer of the King’s Troop RHA. Connell has been with USEF since 2014. Read on:

Q: This interview comes as a response to a June 20th editorial in which a horse owner spoke out on the reasons why she will not be attending Rio 2016. What would you like to make clear on that subject?
A: First of all, an owner is entitled to their own opinion. And the USEF has not said, ‘don’t go to Rio based on security reasons.’ We have said, hotel accommodation is a challenge, it’s very expensive, it’s difficult to come by, the transport is a challenge, don’t expect Rio to be like Normandy, or London, or Hong Kong. It’s going to be a very different experience, and therefore, if you’re not fully inside a team environment, there are going to be challenges. You might make the judgment—am I going to enjoy it as much as I did in London, or am I going to enjoy it more if I sit at home and watch it on the tv.

And that’s all we’ve said to people. Be aware, this is not going to be like London 2012.

But just to put the security thing to bed, I personally don’t have any more concern than if I were operating in a number of major cities around the world. Security is an application of logic: if you go out and walk along the Copacabana Beach at midnight, on your own, with gold jewelry, you’re going to come back without your gold jewelry.

I’ve been to Rio seven times now, I’ve always been careful about where I’ve gone, I’ve only used registered taxis, and I’ve never felt unsafe.

During the Games, as long as you stick to the mainstream routes, for example if you use the bus transport during a competition period, you’re going to be fine. Now, would I use the bus transport during a non-competition period at midnight on my own? Probably not.

We have our own transport linked to the hotel that we will use for anyone that’s part of our setup, riders, owners. We do have some owners that are at different hotels, and we’ll work to link our transport into them or to help them find drop-off points in Deodoro.

Q: What are your thoughts on the findings of private security teams who have been sent to Rio by those individuals with the means to perform a private risk assessment?
A: If you send a security team down there that know nothing about the Olympics, and they go down there in March and look for example at the transport network, well the transport network isn’t set up until the 25th of July, and then it ramps up on the 30th, and hits its full pick on the 5th. Yes, we are still awaiting the final documentation on transportation which is annoying. But if someone had said to me in April we’ll go down and have a look at the transport routes I would have said, ‘well why?’ There’s nothing to see.

Each Games brings its own challenges. In London you could walk out of the venue and go to any number of places. You can’t do that in Rio. And I think that is where this confusion of “go or don’t go” comes from. If you want to be able to go to a Michelin starred restaurant, and walk back through historic streets at midnight, then don’t go to Rio, because that’s not what you’ll get there.

You can’t stay at the Mandarin Oriental and get driven in your chauffeur driven car to within 20 yards of the front gate. That won’t happen in Rio. If that is essential to your happiness, then don’t go.

If you want to go to the best sporting event in the world and you’re happy to put up with two and a half star accommodations as opposed to four star and you might be on a crowded bus and you’re willing to do that, go to Rio.

Q: Can you speak to concerns about the completion of the new highway connecting Deodoro Complex, where the equestrian sports will be held, to Barra de Tijuca, where the central Olympic Village is located?
A: I’m very confident that the road from Barra de Tijuca to Deodoro will be finished, just because it is so epicentral to making Deodoro work. I was last there in March, and the progress between January to March was extraordinary. It is certainly one of the top projects that the IOC has got their eyes on, because without that road it’s going to be very, very difficult.

We are experiencing an amount of information coming out late in the day [from Rio 2016 organizers], and that’s disappointing, so we don’t know exactly where the drop-off points are, or how the transport lanes will work. And will the road have white lines, or will they be a bit squiggly because they were rushing to paint them on? Perhaps, but the road will be there.

As far as Deodoro, which is a major Olympic venue that is hosting up to eight different sports, there are two major transport links that come out of it. There’s a train and a bus rapid transport system that come into a spectator hub within the Deodoro barracks, and from that spectator hub it feeds out to the different venues.

But this will be my fourth Olympics and the thing with an Olympic Games is that you kind of have to put the different pieces together. There are the challenges that you can’t impact on, i.e. accreditation is limited. Then there is the stuff you can impact on, and that’s what I focus on all the time. And then there’s the realization that actually, you’re a very small grain of sand on a very large beach as far as this entire operation goes.

Q: It’s no surprise that horse welfare and safety has been a topic of conversation for a long while. How have you seen Rio prepare for that side of things?
A: Horse welfare, that’s non negotiable. Of course there will be a fence around the stables. And there will be controlled access. The horse trucks that are transporting the horses to the venue have been brought over from Germany. The stables are being completely rebuilt. They will have rubber matting, be large in size with stalls facing outward so that you’re not walking down narrow aisles. There will be a new veterinary clinic, and yes it’s running a little late, and we are a little concerned about everything being finished, but we do believe that everything is being done to guarantee the welfare of the horses.

The ventilation is good there, and although it will be warm there will be low humidity. The surfaces are good, and the venue has been empty of horses since April of 2015 to address the mormo concern.

Will the paint be dry on the grooms’ accommodations? Maybe, maybe not. Should the paint be dry? Yes, it should, and if it’s not, well don’t touch the walls.”

We know the venue manager, who is an eventing TD and was a commanding officer of the military barracks.

But when it comes to other things, you have to say, ok, we can deal with this. Will the paint be dry on the grooms’ accommodations? Maybe, maybe not. Should the paint be dry? Yes, it should, and if it’s not, well don’t touch the walls.

Q: Another worry has been if the water will be safe for competing horses to drink and use. Has USEF looked into the quality of the water at Deodoro?
A: We actually brought some water back from the test event, and it tested well within our parameters.

I think the water supply into Deodoro is coming off a completely different source, it’s not coming from Lagoa Lake. Certainly what we brought back, and going back to the 2007 Pan Am Games I’m told there weren’t issues. The water is perfectly safe, there are horses drinking that water day in and day out (polo horses, army horses.)

Q: As far as the security, you mentioned that you feel very confident that the venue and athletes will be secure. Can you explain?
A: The hotel has security, there are security assets we have access to, and the venue has security. There will be an outer fence and security patrolling the perimeter of the venue, who are very clearly people you don’t want to mess with. Everything is scanned going in, so it will be like an airport to get in, and within the venue is a front of house, back of house, and you can’t go back of house without certain accreditation. And within back of house you have additional security around the stabling that is controlled by the FEI regulations.

And what is the crime that you’re going to expect in Rio? It’s mugging, low level based. We’re not taking about a high level, Islamic terrorist threat in Rio. We get sanitized security briefings, and every athlete traveling to Rio will receive a security briefing when they go through team processing in Houston or when they arrive in Rio to be made aware of risks, and security plans.

Q: With all this talk about security, Zika risk almost seems like a lesser concern. Is it?
A: On the Zika side, the US Olympic Committee has been very proactive about offering advice to athletes. We’ve had athletes that have had concerns, and we’ve given them all the information and given them the opportunity to speak to the experts, and as it stands, we the USEF don’t have any athletes in line for selection who’ve said they’re not interested in going because of a concern with Zika.

Q: As far as the ability to ship hay and grain in with the horses, how has that issue been addressed?
A: This whole area of medications and feeds and grains and supplements has been more complex than it needed to be, which is often the case in South America as a whole. But now we’re are at a point where, we might not be able to get all of the feeds we want to have in, but there’s a long enough list and we’re far enough out now that no one should be getting surprised. Over the last two weeks we’ve been working with all our riders who might go, looking at what’s on the list and that sort of thing.

Hay has been challenging in that they started on a position of no hay being imported into Rio. They have now allowed one source of timothy hay to be taken from the US by KER, the official food supplier of the Games, and that is timothy hay you can buy in the US so we have been able to put our horses on it, and a very very similar timothy hay is available in Europe. And they will supply alfalfa and another type of hay at the venue.

The ideal would have been – acknowledging this is a disease free zone, the horses are effectively sealed in an environment from the airport, to the venue, and back to the airport again, and any feed they don’t use is destroyed at the end of the Games.

“We do have a plan, and we’ve been communicating that plan since November last year. We can cope with the challenges.”

But I think we’re always progressing with international movement of horses and we’re certainly not there yet. And it’s not just Rio 2016 where these problems exist.

However, these are the sort of challenges where you can make a difference.

Q: With all this said, it seems there is no doubt in your mind that Rio 2016 is happening.
A: The Olympics is such a big rolling bus that it’s going to go ahead. The more removed you are from the hub of it, the more challenges you’re going to face with accommodations, transportation, etc.

We’ve said to our owners, before you book your trip, consider this. Rio is not London, or Aachen or Rotterdam or whatever.

But we do have a plan, and we’ve been communicating that plan since November last year. We can cope with the challenges, it’s all part of coping with an Olympic Games.