When the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad begin with characteristic fanfare Aug. 13 in Athens--the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games--approximately 10,500 of the world's greatest athletes will convene to match skills and wits in 28 sports. Leaving nothing to chance, competitors will be accompanied by coaches, trainers, medical doctors, psychologists, and therapists, all focused with their eyes on the prize--a cherished gold, silver, or bronze medal.
Only equestrian Olympic sports feature athlete pairings with an animal and allow men and women (as well as mares, stallions, and geldings) to compete on an equal basis. Just as with any other competitor, the equestrian rider's painstaking preparations to "get there" will be inconsequential should a serious accident, injury, or illness occur to him or her. But just as important, that person cannot compete without his/her partner--the horse.
In Athens, America's equine athletes will have access to the most comprehensive and sophisticated array of specialists and facilities of any previous Olympic competition. It's dreams away from what was available when equestrian competition was dubbed an Olympic sport in 1900.
At the helm is Professor Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, VetDr, president of the Athens Veterinary Commission, his second time in that role for the Olympic Games. Athens will be his fifth Olympics; he's also officiated at four World Equestrian Games. He serves as Chairman of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Veterinary Committee and is a member of the FEI Bureau--the group's main executive body. In that job, he reports on all relevant medication, health, welfare, and inspection issues. Add to his list of titles "Veterinary Technical Delegate," which means he handles the all-inclusive planning for the event.
Early, thoughtful preparation is at the top of Jeffcott's wish list, yet he admits that Greek ways of doing things have presented a singular--although not insurmountable--set of challenges. Every Olympics has its own "tone," but this time Jeffcott is working within an acknowledged "very complicated system" and admits that the prevalent tendency is sometimes eleventh-hour, a.k.a. last-minute. He's happy to report, however, that procrastination has not yet been detrimental.
"The Greeks were very responsible about soliciting advice when observing Sydney," says Jeffcott. "They want to provide superior accommodations for elite horses and exemplary veterinary facilities at which the animals may be properly examined and treated."
Envision a brand new equestrian center with all the bells and whistles. It adjoins a new racecourse, which will remain in use after the Olympics. Stables exist for nearly 2,000 horses; the equestrian center can house up to 300 horses. Barns there have been custom-built for comfort in Athens' climate, "well-designed with tall ceilings, good insulation, an 'open' feel with good air circulation, excellent appointments, wide aisles...all easy to clean," says Jeffcott.
Nothing has been spared for this ultra high-end horse housing. This Olympics will have three-day eventers moving in first, then dressage horses, then jumpers; they'll complete their competitions, then leave.
The elaborate equine complex is entirely secure and includes extensive exercise areas, plus smaller areas for washing and longeing. Stadiums for dressage and show jumping are adjacent, as are numerous expansive training areas for each discipline.
Veterinarians will be meticulous about identifying and testing for signs of any infectious diseases. Those that could be passed from one horse to another are not likely to occur in this carefully controlled environment. American horses, for example, will be checked by their veterinarians prior to departure. "Then they will undergo a certain level of quarantine here just as they would if they went anywhere in Europe," says Jeffcott. The process will be easier than in Australia, where "it was a huge island with few horse diseases, so risk (of bringing in a disease) was greater."
Athens' location means easier management, since the majority of horses coming in "have good clearance and accreditation from the U.S., other parts of Europe, and Australia," says Jeffcott. Most horses will fly, except those from Europe, which will travel by road and basically "go straight in," he adds. Horses flying in from an accredited country, just like those arriving by road, will also have quick access. Quarantine authority veterinarians will check horses, passports, and paperwork, then direct them to their venues. "The entire equine site is in fact a quarantine site," reports Jeffcott.
Horses from countries such as South Africa, Pakistan, and China--where infectious disease programs are weaker--must spend at least six weeks in accredited countries like the United States or United Kingdom first, then move across to Greece when directed by official veterinarians, according to Jeffcott.
Transport from airport to stables should be relatively stress-free due to reconstructed roads. Plus, the airport is close to the equestrian venues in Markopoulo, approximately 20 miles from the city center.
"Ours is one of the furthest venues from town, but the air is cleaner, with no ozone problem," says Jeffcott. "We expect them all to travel well, come in reasonably fit, get acclimatized, and go about their training programs."
Four barns at the equine center will be utilized in total, one of which will be only for piroplasmosis-positive horses (piroplasmosis is an infectious disease caused by a protozoal parasite).
"This isn't expected to be a serious problem in Greece," he notes. The extent of pre-event medical care, including blood tests, has reduced anticipation of extensive piroplasmosis problems; the disease is primarily transmitted by ticks. (For more information on piroplasmosis and its effects on Olympic events, see www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?id=118, www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?id=818, and www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?id=95.)
The on-site medical center consists of an examination area, operating theaters, imaging facilities, clinical pathology laboratory, treatment and drug testing boxes... "anything that you would need for any situation," says Jeffcott. Horses will have access to radiography, ultrasonography, endoscopy, thermography, and shock wave treatment. And that's just the beginning.
Let's Talk About the Weather
"We know temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, and it will be dry," says Jeffcott. The veterinarians have amassed finite analyses of "what an event takes out of a horse" and they're prepared for the next round. "We've learned how to maintain hydration and fitness going into a competition, how to keep cool in the face of a heat load, and then when they've 'come down,' how to properly look after them," he says.
Jeffcott explains how the equine body handles temperatures: If it's hot and dry (Athens), horses will sweat, losing body fluid as they cool themselves. "We want to ensure they drink plenty of water," he says, and there will be no guesswork. Horses will be weighed in the morning before exercise, and again after they have worked.
"A horse could come back, choose not to drink, be weighed again and have lost 10 to 20 liters (2.6 to 5.3 gallons)," he reports.
You already know you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink: If that's the situation, veterinarians will utilize a nasogastric tube to give the required amount of fluids, or they'll inject them into the veins. "It's a welfare issue," says Jeffcott, who along with his colleagues prefers to avoid humane forcing of extra fluids. He cites other effective options that have worked well at former Olympic Games and will be used in 2004.
Banks of misting fans were successful in Atlanta in 1996, both on horses after cross-country jumping and in the stables. "Plus, we'll use hundreds of thousands of liters of water cooled by up to six tons of ice," he adds. Water soaks are used on the hot areas of the horse--neck, back, and hindquarters--then as soon as it's applied, it's scraped off.
"We want evaporation and sweating to occur," says Jeffcott, who adds that wet horses are then walked briefly prior to repeating the process.
Even before horses enter the arenas to demonstrate their disciplines, they will have been deemed fit to compete--sound and healthy--by official veterinarians who'll inspect every horse. The horses will indeed be "under the microscope," undergoing examinations before, during, and after competition.
In the interest of a drug-free competition, some 40 to 50 horses might be randomly tested via urine and blood samples. All medal horses will be tested immediately. Lab samples will be sent to the FEI central laboratory in Paris by courier, and results will be reported after the Olympics.
Veterinarians will be stationed at the hospital, with others strategically positioned at the competitions, mostly on the cross-country course. "If a horse falls or suffers damage, it can be quickly taken to the clinic," promises Jeffcott.
"No one is 'reinventing the wheel' this time," he says. His staff has "been there, done that," and is prepared to expect the unexpected and deal with it.
He isn't losing sleep...yet. "You do wonder how the whole team will perform, but most things are already well in place," he comments. Proof positive: An August 2003 eventing dress rehearsal "went very well and the horses were fine," reports Jeffcott, and "yes, the weather was, as expected, pretty hot and dry."
Referral Par Extraordinaire
Meet the other top U.S. Olympic team--the directors of the Olympic Veterinary Clinic. Jack R. Snyder, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, is a professor in the Department of Surgical and Radiologic Sciences at the University of California, Davis. Ninety percent of his practice is lameness and surgery in performance horses. Snyder's wife of 20 years and veterinary partner at the Olympics is Sharon J. Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at UC Davis.
In this specialized horse care genre, Snyder and Spier "wrote the book." They began their Olympic education at Seoul in 1988, and with the exception of Barcelona, haven't missed an event.
"What's been really helpful for us, for the horses, and for the teams in general, is that over the years, 80% of the veterinarians stay the same," says Snyder. "We know everybody, and they know us."
They've started from ground zero at certain competitions, bringing in all equipment and supplies, as they did at the Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba. Conversely, they liken the Athens facility set-up to that of Seoul, which also involved the planned permanency of a racetrack with a modern hospital to remain on site.
"Our job will be to work with the Greek veterinarians as a team, to ensure that we're all ready to meet any challenge," says Snyder, who remembers treating five to 10 horses a day in Sydney. "Tasks will depend on what injuries occur and on how long the horses remain there," he says. "Some will require a variety of maintenance treatments, others just basic treatments. The facility will operate a lot like a referral center. We're not just working for the U.S. team, we're 'neutral.' We work for the Olympic Organizing Committee and the Greek government pays the bills."
Some teams will bring no veterinarians, while the U.S. will typically have two or three. "If, for example, we're asked to examine a horse via X rays or ultrasound, we'll do it as we would in a normal veterinary hospital," Snyder says. "Our facility will be stocked with everything necessary to perform a procedure, whether colic or major orthopedic." Non-emergency procedures such as hydrotherapy, heat therapy, ice, and laser will be available, too.
The hospital's inventory is by design. "The Olympics, Pan American Games (in Havana and Buenos Aires), and World Equestrian Games (in Rome, Italy, and Jerez, Spain) we've attended have taught us a great deal," he adds. "With each one, we learned more about what was required."
These veterinarians start with common-sense basics like needles and syringes and move up. "We categorize item-by-item, page by page--it's all on computer now," Snyder explains. "I still methodically check and re-check that everything is in order, and that we know its location. Doing medical procedures...that's only half the challenge. The other half is being ready and able to do it!"
A select group of international veterinary students, most Greek, will assist the veterinary team, which will be on call 24/7. Extra help walking the barn aisles at night will be welcome, Snyder admits.
Specialists will have a comprehensive history of each horse competing, not only from a medical standpoint, but "from what we know each does well, or not so well," allowing individual treatment, if required, to clip along at an efficient pace. "These horses are world-class athletes, the Michael Jordans of their disciplines. They know how to compete. We know how to help them compete their best," Snyder states.
Research will again be part of the curriculum. A Sydney study on ulcers yielded valuable information; now the FEI has approved use of ulcer medication, so further investigation isn't as crucial.
The veterinarians did evaluate soft tissue injuries in Australia. "We'll probably continue looking at those injuries that affect suspensory ligaments and tendons," reports Snyder.
Colic will also be a research priority. "Moving a horse to a different place, especially a different climate, can exacerbate colic," says Snyder, who agrees that the word is dreaded by horse owners the world over and merits attention. He recounts a massive lightning storm that struck Sydney during the 2000 games. "We monitored 10 colics right after that," he recalls, adding that none was a fatality.
The U.S. veterinarians caring for the 2004 Olympic horses are going all out to win the gold in horse care in Athens. Other countries' specialists will be watching and working alongside to learn from the best.
So, when you're watching the Olympic equestrian events as they unfold this summer, know that some of the best performances are taking place behind the scenes, all in the interest of equine welfare.
About the Author
Stephanie Stephens is a USEF Media Award winner and American Horse Publications award winner whose work appears in major consumer magazines worldwide. She lives in Southern Calif., but she splits her time between New Zealand and the United States.