Stock photo, Olympic Test Event at Deodoro, August, 2015. Ph. Rafael Maeck/FEI
Trepidation is putting it lightly. Anxiety, fear, and ultimately, the decision to stay home has been spreading among the small but strong group of elite horse owners in the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
This year, all Olympic athletes and their connections are facing a grab bag of problems swirling around the upcoming Olympics—Zika virus, political instability, crime, general unpreparedness, the list goes on.
Will Rio De Janeiro be capable of holding a successful Olympics? Organizers of the Games emphasize that the Olympics are run by private funds, and won’t be affected by Brazil’s or Rio De Janeiro’s instability.
But that wasn’t enough for Vicky Castegren, owner of Olympic hopeful Imothep under Japan’s Taizo Sugitani (Sugitani himself has been confirmed to Japan’s Olympic Team, however his horse is yet to be confirmed by Japanese selectors). Castegren, who owns and operates Hyperion Stud in Barboursville, Virginia, USA, was among several horse owners who commissioned their own private security teams to travel to Rio de Janeiro this spring in order to perform independent risk assessment analyses of local conditions.
What they found has convinced Castegren to stay at home, rather than travel to the area to be ringside to see her horse perform.
“I figured I’d get my feet in the sand early, to see what was going on,” Castegren said. Her security team traveled to Rio in April, 2016, to spend a week in the area. “We wanted to see if the city had changed traffic patterns to accommodate the Games; to get a handle on real terrorist threats rather than this ‘everything is fine’ attitude; to walking the streets, figuring out whether crime is prevalent.”
Owners of Olympic horses are arguably among the wealthiest groups that are planning to attend the Games, and personal safety concerns were raised early on. Those going to Rio have been advised to fly into Brazil on commercial rather than private flights, to leave all jewelry at home, to do everything to blend in and not attract attention to their status.
“I’ve been told that the US Federation has continuously kept saying to riders ‘tell your owners not to go because we cannot guarantee their safety.'”
As a horse owner who is responsible for an equine athlete, and in part for a human athlete as well, Castegren wanted to know if there would be security with the athletes when they’re traveling to and from the competition venue, if the IOC was bringing in their own security, or if they would leave it to Brazil to handle. If the water would be safe for horses to drink (much less humans), or if water filters would need to be packed. If the horses would be greeted by a secure environment after landing at the airport in Brazil. She couldn’t find the answers, and those questions didn’t begin to address her own personal safety.
“It’s the responsibility of the IOC and the Federations to make sure our horses and riders are safe,” Castegren says. “I’ve been told that the US Federation has continuously kept saying to riders ‘tell your owners not to go because we cannot guarantee their safety.’ I’m really upset that I’m sitting here fighting with all these factors after everything we’ve put into this to get our horse to this point.
“We bought Imothep as a six year old. We threaded the needle to get here. We made gut wrenching decisions to get here. And now I’m going to send my prized horse into the lion’s den. No one can tell us any information about the security of our horses. Are they going to have a chain link fence around the stable area or something secure? Who’s going to be walking up and down the aisles? From the perspective of the horses alone, I think that the IOC and the Federations need to assure horse owners and people like myself that it’s going to be ok.”
Largely, the organizers and spokespeople within the federations have said just that. But for Castegren, receiving cookie-cutter answers wasn’t enough.
When her security team returned from Rio and presented her with their completed risk assessment report, they asked her one question: “how important are the Olympic Games to you?”
“Everything I’m hearing doesn’t make me comfortable to attend as an owner or a spectator,” she answered.
“There are too many questions that need to be asked and I don’t think we’re going to get the answers.”
“Good response,” they said. “Things look unfinished. You can go down six miles of highway under construction and there is one guy sweeping the road. The slums are still prevalent. Crime is still prevalent. The water quality is very bad.”
Castegren hopes that the FEI and IOC will start speaking up strongly to better outline her concerns. For her, the risks of traveling and being in Rio far outweigh the benefits of witnessing her horse perform in the biggest competition of his life.
So ultimately, she’ll be watching the Olympics from her living room, and she’ll be ill at ease knowing her horse, not to mention her rider, will be facing more challenges at these Olympics than just the jumps in the arena.
“I like to go in with as much information as I can possibly gather,” she says. “I try to minimize my exposure to every threat. I think it will be a miracle if they pull this off. With the horses there are too many questions that need to be asked and I don’t think we’re going to get the answers.”