London Olympics 2012: In the Shadow of Kings

The equestrian portion of the London Olympic Games will play out against a backdrop of history and royalty

London--an ancient city where tradition and trendiness intersect--is the place to be nowadays. First, in April 2011 the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton drew the adoring eyes of everyone who loves a good old-fashioned happily-ever-after complete with princess and pomp. Then, fresh from that joyous occasion, the focus returned to where it's been for nearly four years: the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which commence in July.

One of the reasons London won its Olympic bid was that organizers promised a compact Games, with every sport held within easy reach for a vibrant, urban, accessible competition. That includes the Olympic equestrian sports (jumping, eventing, and dressage), all of which will be held at the historic Greenwich Park. (The equestrian segment of the modern-pentathlon competition and the 2012 Paralympic Games equestrian competition will be held there as well.) Here's a preview of what to expect.

The Site: A Global Treasure

It's impossible to overstate the historical significance of London's oldest Royal Park. The land has been settled since Roman times (the remains of a Roman temple are still in the park), but in 1427 the 183-acre site--situated in southeast London about eight miles east of the central historic district --became a royal estate when Henry V gave it to his brother, Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester.

It's easy to see why Greenwich Park was a coveted location. The acreage abuts the River Thames, which winds through London. From atop the park's steep hill visitors enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Some of England's most famous royals have lived and played at Greenwich. Henry VIII was born in Greenwich Palace, as were his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. King Henry, an avid sportsman, introduced a herd of red-tailed deer, the descendants of which still roam park land. James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I, gave the palace and the park to his wife, Queen Anne, who had a house built on the land not far from the Thames. The Queen's House, as it is known, will play an important role in the 2012 Olympics, as we'll discuss later.

Greenwich Park is famous for other reasons, too. Most notably, it is home to the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°0'0"), otherwise known as Greenwich Mean Time, and the basis for determining the local time worldwide. In 1675 Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren (designer of London's St. Paul's Cathedral) to design the Royal Observatory atop that steep hill for the purpose of calculating longitude at sea.

In 1694 the site of Greenwich Palace, which sat at the foot of the park land overlooking the Thames, became a naval hospital that was also planned by Sir Christopher Wren. In the late 1800s Wren's baroque buildings were reinvented as the Royal Naval College, England's counterpart to the United States Naval Academy. Today it's known as the Old Royal Naval College, and the buildings now house the University of Greenwich campus.

The entire grounds--Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich Park, Royal Observatory, National Maritime Museum, and the Queen's House--were designated a World Heritage Site in 1997.

Historic Preservation

Although the British are known for their horse-loving culture, the selection of Greenwich Park as the location of the 2012 Olympic equestrian events dismayed many historic preservationists, not to mention the neighbors whose pricey homes on streets near the park afford easy recreational access. The opposition even formed a community-action group, No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events (NOGOE), which attempted (unsuccessfully) to get the events moved elsewhere.

Fears about bringing the Olympics to Greenwich Park focused on two aspects: potentially disrupting the land and its archeological treasures, and limiting park access of those who use it for recreation.

Although some worried neighbors were repeating rumors that Greenwich Park would be closed to the public for a year or more, it will actually be closed only for about five weeks, according to Tim Hadaway, equestrian events manager for the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). Hadaway has held several town-hall-style meetings with area residents, answering questions and attempting to quell fears and engender support for the Games.

Perhaps the list of what's being done to protect the Royal Park will help everyone relax a little. For starters, the entire 80-by-100-meter main arena, including spectator seating, will be installed on a temporary raised platform so as not to disturb the ground beneath, says Hadaway, who took The Horse on an exclusive tour of the Greenwich Park site in February 2011. The grandstand will accommodate 22,000 spectators, similar to the amount of seating at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, in Lexington, Ky. (It will have the largest spectator capacity of all the London Olympic venues except for the main Olympic Stadium and the football [soccer] stadium, Hadaway notes.)

All of the structures being built for the Olympics are temporary, with the objective being to restore Greenwich Park to its usual state as soon as possible post-Games. "Even the cross-country jumps are portable," Hadaway said. Except for such immobile features as banks and water jumps, the obstacles are being built "in workshops around the country" and will be shipped to London for installation, he explains.

As much as possible existing park features will be "repurposed" for the Games, thereby minimizing the Olympics' footprint on the hallowed ground while showcasing Greenwich Park's historic jewels. A children's boating pond will serve as a cross-country water jump. Part of the National Maritime Museum will be converted to the Olympic press center. Grooms will be just steps away from their charges at Devonport House, a chic small hotel and conference center situated just outside park gates. And the Queen's House--the former royal villa's walls decked with fine art by the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, and others--will become a lounge and meeting place for officials from the International Olympic Committee, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), and other VIPs. Queen's House visitors literally will be able to look out the windows or stand on the spacious veranda and watch the action, as the building flanks the expanse of lawn that will become the Olympic equestrian stadium.

Hadaway is no stranger to international equestrian events. A former two-star eventing competitor and cross-country course designer, he's organized the Blair Castle International Horse Trials in Scotland and is an FEI technical delegate (TD). He attended the 2008 Olympic eventing test event in Hong Kong in 2007 and, during the Games themselves, served in an official capacity by supporting the eventing TD team with duties including overseeing the cross-country warm-up and finish area. He was LOCOG's first full-time equestrian events hire, and for London he will oversee every aspect of competition for the three Olympic equestrian disciplines.

Planning the London Olympic equestrian events entails considerations Hadaway had never dreamed of before joining LOCOG. (The equestrian events plan, approved in March 2010, was 3,500 pages, he said.) Besides the "floating" arena, there's the matter of hooves' impact on cross-country. English Heritage, a government-funded historic preservation commission, had to grant permission for the course construction. Hadaway and 2012 Olympic cross-country course designer Sue Benson had to prove the grass on the course will prevent damage to the ground beneath. While on cross-country, horses will gallop through a line of ancient, stately trees whose root systems will be protected in places by a layer of wood chips. A sports-turf specialist will help ensure the cross-country course footing is both horse-friendly and preservation-minded.

From Weather to Welfare: Other Considerations

Warm temperatures in England aren't unheard of, but they're not likely to cause concern the way they did in Hong Kong '08 or Atlanta '96, with those locales' high heat and humidity necessitating extraordinary measures to keep horses cool.

According to Hadaway, most non-U.K.-based Olympic horses will fly into Germany and from there will ship to Greenwich.

A dedicated veterinary team will be on-site to oversee the equine athletes' health and welfare. In London the FEI veterinary-services manager will be Jenny Hall, BVSc, MRCVS, who served as the British eventing team veterinarian from 2000 to 2008, Hadaway said.

Should an Olympic or Paralympic horse require surgery, he will be transported to one of several area clinics in a specially designed "horsebox lorry" (horse van) that's low-slung for a shallow ramp angle and equipped with a turntable device allowing horses to walk both on and off, according to Hadaway. The lorry will be stocked ambulance-style so ill or injured horses can be treated while en route.

Hadaway listed three well-known facilities that horses might be treated at depending on the situation: Bell Equine Veterinary Clinic, about 30 miles from Greenwich, in Kent; the Royal Veterinary College's Sefton Equine Hospital, about 40 miles away, in Hertfordshire; and the Newmarket Equine Hospital, known for its orthopedic expertise, about 60 miles away, in Suffolk.

Nowadays, arena footing at major competitions is mostly a nonissue. London 2012 promises the same, with its polymer-coated sand, rubber, and textile fiber mixture similar to the footing recipe that withstood Hong Kong's typhoons in 2008, according to Hadaway. Beneath the footing, a layer of egg-crate-style honeycomb material facilitates drainage and evenness.

The footing is "being designed to withstand a hundred-year flood," Hadaway said. In another plus, the site itself has good drainage because there's "not much topsoil," he said.

Stables, a covered training arena, the athletes' cafeteria, and show and stabling offices--all temporary, of course--will be located on the western side of the park, Hadaway said.

If You Go

The British love the sport of eventing, as evidenced by the fact that tickets to the cross-country phase are already sold out, according to the website of the British magazine Horse & Hound. (It was one of the first five Olympic events to sell out.)

By the time you read this, Olympic Games ticket sales in both the United States and the U.K. will have concluded; however, tickets to the 2012 Paralympic Games (Aug. 29-Sept. 9) will be on sale via the U.S.-authorized Olympic ticket reseller, CoSport.

London is a snap to navigate via public transportation, thanks largely to its famous underground subway system (aka the Tube). You can take the Tube directly from London's Heathrow Airport, the city's largest and best-known. From another popular portal, Gatwick Airport, trains and buses run to Victoria Station in Central London, where a Tube station is also located.

Once in London, Greenwich is easy to reach by land or by sea (river, that is). A leisurely cruise down the Thames on a River Tour boat affords wonderful views of noted landmarks and sightseeing commentary. In more of a hurry? Take the River Bus for a speedier, commuter-oriented trip.

By land, the Tube does not extend all the way to Greenwich, but it's easy to connect from several stations to the aboveground Docklands Light Railway, which stops at Greenwich.

For travel-info details, maps, links, and more, visit the Transport for London website at

A Games for the Ages

London's vibrant, historic-meets-hip character promises to stamp the 2012 Olympics with a unique blend of ancient and modern. Nowhere will that mix be more evident than in Greenwich Park, where equestrians will attempt to establish new standards of excellence in a setting that's older than Britain itself. Bring on the Games!

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site,

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