By sportswriter Wang Zijiang
DUBLIN, Ireland, Aug. 13 (Xinhua) — As she exited the stands of the Royal Dublin Society Arena, full of about 20,000 Irish fans gathered to watch a thrilling FEI Nations Cup show jumping event, Sabrina Ibanez, the FEI Secretary General, was excited.
The event’s success proved that a solid fan base exists for equestrian. It also proved that her work of 27 years has paid off.
“It’s fantastic,” she told Xinhua. “They really wanted to see the performers. It was absolutely fantastic.”
But the sweetest success yet is still in the making, and it’s one that she believes will soon be achieved. She thinks the sport will soon see rapid growth in China, the world’s most popoulous country and second largest economy.
“I think it’s gonna happen quicker than you think,” said Ibanez, who joined the global governing body of equestrian in 1991 and has served as the FEI Secretary General since December 2014.
“I mean we’re ready – I don’t know if you are aware of – but we have already started the FEI World Cup Chinese League in 2011. It’s growing more and more. We’re seeing now that there is now a huge – a big interest in China to promote and to develop the sport.”
Ibanez recalled that Gou Zhongwen, the Minister of the General Administration of Sports of China, told IOC President Thomas Bach last year in Lausanne that equestrian is one of the 10 sports which are of interest to Chinese.
“It shows that the Chinese government also wants to do something and we’re seeing clubs popping up all over China and competitions have doubled in the past five years.”
Statistics show that in 2014 there were around 200 equestrian or riding clubs in China. Now the figure is over 1,500 and rising, with club membership at nearly one million. World No. 1 Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands chose to kick off his Global Champions League campaign in Shanghai. He and his top stallion Don VHP Z graced Shanghai’s LGCT Circuit, lifting the trophy.
“We just established this year a Chinese FEI website, and we also have secured commercial partnerships to ensure that our events are broadcasted on China’s national TV [networks]. So for us it is an incredible market and we know that the Chinese people as well have had a long history with horses in the past. There is now this wish from the people to go back to that and to find their roots again in equestrianism,” Ibanez said.
The equstrian tradition in China dates back several millennia, when chariot conducting was one of the six arts that young Chinese nobles needed to master under the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC). The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games allowed the Chinese people rediscover horse riding as a sport. New interest was created due to the participation of the only Chinese eventing rider Alex Hua Tian, who was born to an English mother and a Chinese father.
Because of strict quarantine rules which made it impossible to fly international competition horses in and out of China, the equestrian events of the Beijing Olympics were held in Hong Kong. But in the 10 years since the Beijing Olympics, international equestrian sports events were able to be hosted in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities by creating special quarantine zones.
Ibanez noted that the complicated quarantine problems will soon be solved that all the hurdles will be cleared. If the new protocol is passed, horses can be moved in and out of China freely.
“We are now working to help the transportation of horses,” she said. “We are working very closely with the OIE which is the World Organisation for Animal Health, and with the International Horse Racing Federation. We are also working with the agriculture ministers – not only in China but in other countries as well. A new protocol will help them to enable horses to come in and out. We are getting very close to finding the solutions that are necessary,” she said.
Ibanez says that the future is looking bright for equestrian in China, and that a surge in popularity is right around the corner.
“I’m super optimistic,” she said. “It’s gonna happen. Then you can have more international competitions. That would be the best thing in the world to have a nation’s competition in China. There is a vision, there is a strategy and there are clear objectives.
“When we have visits to China [it is clear]that there is really an enormous [interest]from people, and now people are bringing in information. They are bringing in trainers, coaches, farriers because people want to practice the sport. They want to see the sport practiced and have international competitions,” she remarked.
Hua Tian, who was only 18 when he competed at the Beijing Olympics 10 years ago, went on to finish eighth in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Ibanez said the London-born and Eton-educated rider has become an important ambassdor for the sport.
“Alex is a fantastic ambassador for the sport,” she said. “He was one of our focus when we did this campaign in 2016 to get more people interested in the equestrian sport.”