(March 1999) Sydney 2000, November/December 1998

Heading back here for the first time since February we were both looking forward to seeing the progress made in the intervening period, not just at the equestrian site but also throughout the city and at the other venues.

This trip was just under 5 weeks and was to involve 3 weeks-in Sydney and the rest divided between other jobs in Melbourne and LA and it would be fair to say that Sue and I were looking forward to a couple of days ‘R and R’ as well at the end of what had been a very hectic season – little did we know!

The plan for the equestrian site this year was to get all the groundwork finished with the grass becoming well established and to then build the Test Event course in November/December. (In the year before an Olympics takes place there is a requirement to stage a ‘Test Event’ which is an international competition of a lower level with the specific aim of testing personnel and systems so that the organisation does not go into such a major competition ‘cold’). As it turned out much of the groundwork was good, some was excellent, but some was dreadful! With only 10 months to go before there will be horses competing this did give cause for concern and I ended up spending a considerable amount of time insisting that there was still a great deal of work that had to be done to make the ground acceptable.

It is important to say that it is a very difficult site being largely very poor quality clay that has had to be upgraded to make it acceptable and the team responsible for the footing preparation are working very hard to achieve this – I have no doubt that by the time the mound is used in competition it will be excellent but there will be some financial heartache to get there! Already there have been several kilometres of turf laid and I suspect that when I go back in February much more will have gone down. All of this is compounded by the fact hat the sun in Australia is somewhat aggressive and does not help the growing process even with a huge irrigation system in place.

We started the actual building of the jumps for the Test Event. I had designed and costed this part of the project earlier in the year and so all the materials (or just about all!) were on site when we arrived. Alan Willis, who heads up the course building at Badminton Horse Trials, is heading up the building team in Sydney with one of his sons, James, and they are supported by four Australians. We set ourselves the target of getting this course built within 4 weeks which is very tight, particularly when it was also necessary to finish the water fences and build the frames for the steeplechase fences as well. Mercifully the weather was on our side and was very comfortable which made progress good and just about everything was finished; the rest has now been completed and I look forward to seeing it in a couple of weeks.

Whilst this building work was going on I was continuing with the designing of the Olympic courses. This has been hugely complicated by the fact that the IOC have insisted that there must be two separate competitions, one for the individual and one for the team. Up until Atlanta it was normal and acceptable to have the one competition that would cater for both as happens, for example, at European and World Championships. What this means from a design point of view is that the courses have to be ‘significantly different’ whilst essentially using the same features on the site and not blowing the budget. We plan to build the actual Olympic courses in September/October/November immediately after the Test Event which takes place 23rd – 26th September and finish them off next year in July/August. There are always new things to learn and this trip we, the ‘Pommies’, learned that Australian timber is not only much heavier than British timber, it is considerably harder! Where we’d expect to pick up a 7’ post between two of us over here there is no chance of doing that over there; similarly the wear and tear on the chainsaws is that much greater. It is necessary to use hard wood or the white ants will devour the jumps before a horse gets anywhere near them!

Sue was warned on two occasions that there were plenty of snakes around and to be very careful – nobody warned me, I guess that I must have upset someone!

A warning such as this is taken very seriously since these snakes are pretty lethal! I hasten to add that neither of us has yet to meet one and we both hope that this will remain the case.

We were fortunate to be able to stay in a friend’s apartment right on the harbour opposite the Opera House which is a real treat. Sydney is a fantastic city with lovely people, especially when the Poms are not doing too well in the cricket, and they certainly know how to enjoy themselves. They have also recently started taking people to the top of the Harbour Bridge which must go on the agenda – it even includes a breathalyser before being allowed to go!

The days go by very quickly. We start at 6.00am and are often still going at 8.00/8.30pm and so 3 weeks disappears rapidly. One of the things that we cannot get used to is the Christmas trees coming in when it is high summer – I have to say that Christmas on the beach does have an appeal though!

We did manage to escape to the beach a couple of times and even hired a Harley for a day; with apologies to all Harley nuts we were glad to get off it, Sue’s comment being that it was marginally better than going to the dentist! Perhaps I’ll have another go next time.

Our annual Olympic Update from Mike Etherington Smith