Thursday, August 02, 2012

Defending Dressage

Dressage at the 2012 London OlympicsI mentioned a couple of days ago how I’d had a post ready to share about the old 1944 Western Tall in the Saddle starring John Wayne. Got interrupted by this week’s big PokerStars-DOJ-Full Tilt Poker news and so didn’t pull the trigger (pun intended). I’ve decided I’m going to hold onto that one a short while longer, actually, for a couple of reasons.

One is I’m starting to look back at a few other John Wayne flicks that involve poker, part of a larger project I have in mind regarding poker in film. The other is the Olympics have inspired me to discuss yet another topic, one that also happens to involve horses. And does in fact have something to do with poker, too.

Among other things, the Olympics have the potential to provide a great opportunity to learn about cultures other than one’s own. That sort of education can include learning about various sports and disciplines to which we normally pay little attention otherwise, only following them whenever we see them come up every couple of years at the summer or winter games.

It’s not surprising, then, when every time the Olympics come around we hear reactions -- sometimes voiced as criticisms -- concerning whether a particular event really rates as a “sport” or not. Some readily deliver judgments denouncing, say, synchronized diving or badminton or beach volleyball, and arguing over whether such sports are worthy of being included among those in the summer games. Same goes for curling or snowboarding or luge or perhaps some other sports we see in the winter.

The equestrian sports in the summer games always receive a lot of this sort of attention. There are various reasons why this is the case, although probably the biggest one involves the fact that humans aren’t simply competing against one another but are riding horses which have been variously trained and are thus also necessarily affecting outcomes.

There are six equestrian events, three for individuals and three for teams. Probably the best analogy for understanding how the events break down would be gymnastics, where you have both individual and team competitions, an “all around” event that combines several disciplines, and events which focus just on one discipline.

The equestrian events include one that is called “eventing” which combines dressage, jumping, and cross-country. Then there is just a “jumping” event. Finally they have a “dressage” event, too.

The dressage arena in Greenwich Park where the 2012 London Olympics are being contestedDressage is getting added attention this summer here in the U.S. thanks to the fact that Ann Romney, wife of presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, is part-owner of a 15-year-old mare (Rafalca) that is competing in the individual dressage event, ridden by Jan Ebeling.

Romney, of course, already has an image as a super-wealthy candidate whose affluence (for some) perhaps makes him less able to identify with and/or lead or even communicate with the middle or lower classes. The connection with horse ownership and dressage is predictably being focused on as further evidence supporting that image.

I’ve written about dressage here a few times in the past, thanks to the fact that Vera Valmore (a.k.a., Mrs. Shamus) has been competing for many years. For her the sport is a logical extension of a lifetime of riding horses. I’ve watched countless shows in which she’s participated, and together we’ve seen a number of top level events over the years, including several in which Olympic champions have competed (in Las Vegas, Florida, here in North Carolina, and elsewhere).

The experience has caused me to appreciate dressage and the incredible skill it requires of riders as they communicate (and train) their horses to perform the various gaits and movements required by the various tests. I’ve also come to recognize a lot of overlap between dressage and poker and the mental challenges both involve.

As you might imagine, Vera and I have discussed these connections between poker and dressage many times -- including the fact that as is the case in poker, men and women compete against one another in the equestrian events (the only Olympic sport in which that is the case). I’ve occasionally written about those connections here, too.

Vera can obviously talk about dressage much more knowledgably than I can, although I think I’m probably more informed than most when it comes to discussing it and even arguing in favor of it as a worthwhile pursuit. But really my main reason for even bringing it up here is to defend dressage against the specific charge that it’s a sport in which only the rich can participate.

Nolan DallaWSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla recently started a personal blog in which he’s sharing some entertaining stories and observations. In just a little over a week he’s already published about a dozen posts. Some are about poker and/or gambling, although so far most concern other topics, and all are worthwhile for Dalla’s insight, wit, and readiness to share an opinion or three. For those of us already fans of Dalla’s voluminous poker-related writings, the new blog has quickly become a welcome addition to our daily reading.

One post Dalla wrote earlier this week concerned the Olympics and his belief that “most of these gold medal events aren’t really ‘sports’ at all.” Not surprisingly, the equestrian events were included among those Dalla targeted.

While I’m not really too interested in debating whether or not something like dressage should be an Olympic sport, I do have to take exception to Dalla’s characterization of equestrian events as “nothing more than a chance for uber-rich people to say they made the Olympic team” and that “99.9 percent of the population can’t afford to do this activity.”

Dalla’s missing the mark a bit here. Like poker, dressage can be played at a variety of “stakes” -- high, middle, low, even “micro.” Sure, like those competing in other Olympic sports, there’s a lot of expense involved for those who end up at the Olympics or the World Cup or other top level competitions. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many, many others enjoying and getting a lot out of equestrian events at lower levels, satisfying many of the same desires for competition and achievement many of us get from playing poker.

I’m certain Dalla wouldn’t think it fair for someone to have watched the $1,000,000 buy-in “Big One for One Drop” aired earlier this week on ESPN and from it drawn a conclusion that poker is just for the “uber-rich,” using that as a reason to dismiss it entirely as something not worth our time or attention.

Stephen Colbert's dressage lessonI get where Dalla’s coming from, of course. Stephen Colbert came from a similar place this week on The Colbert Report in his hilarious two-part dressage lesson with the Olympian Michael Barisone (someone Vera and I have seen compete many times).

Check out Colbert’s dressage lesson here and here in which he goofs on the whole idea that dressage could ever be considered a sport for “Joe Six-Pack.”

Sure, dressage isn’t for everyone. But neither is poker. Like poker, equestrian events do generally require money in order to participate. But they are hardly as exclusive as some think.

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Blogger Nolan Dalla said...

Excellent retort, Shamus. I would have expected nothing less than a well thought our counterpunch to my initiab jab at these "sports.". Keep up the discussion and dialogue.

Your Fan,


8/02/2012 7:34 PM  
Blogger diametric said...

Badminton also has men and women competing against each other in the mixed doubles competition.

8/03/2012 9:43 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thanks, Nolan. Yes, diametric... there's also mixed doubles in tennis, although I'd still put the equestrian events (where men and women individually compete against one another) in its own category.

8/05/2012 9:15 AM  

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