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Buzzer calamity sounds pentathlon alarm

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Ollie Williams | 07:46 UK time, Monday, 17 August 2009

Fittingly for a sport which has just introduced a combined run-and-shoot event, modern pentathlon shot itself in the foot on Sunday.

Three years from London 2012, in the first World Championship event the capital has staged for 23 years, British pentathlete Katy Livingston was closing in on a gold medal when the show jumping round - the penultimate stage of the final - began.

Livingston, leading the competition and the last to ride, had produced the fencing display of her life and a strong swim to lead the final by some distance.

Hundreds of fans' hearts skipped a beat with every jump as Livingston and her horse cleared the first nine fences, then closed in on the final three. If she registered a clear round, she would have every chance of winning the tournament.

Then all hell broke loose.

Katy Livingston is thrown from her horse

In the middle of her round, the officials sounded a warning buzzer twice in the space of a couple of seconds. Livingston lost her concentration, careered over several jumps, and was thrown from her horse moments later.

There was no immediate explanation for the buzzer's sudden, brutal intrusion, but as Livingston hit the ground, so her chances of becoming world champion plummeted too. The penalty points alone ruled that out, no matter the damage it did to her confidence and composure.

"They put me off," she called to her coach as she was helped back onto her horse. You could hear that loud and clear. The arena was silent.

It later transpired that the officials noticed a broken fence had not been repaired since the previous round, so they buzzed Livingston to stop. But the course stewards fixed it at the same instant, so the second buzzer told Livingston to carry on since all was now well. It confused everyone else - no wonder it confused her.

"I was really angry as soon as I got off the horse. It was a massive opportunity for me," Livingston told me after the final run-and-shoot event, which saw her drop to 23rd place in the wake of the afternoon's madness.

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Livingston herself, while admitting her anger, stopped short of direct criticism of the officials.

"You can't appeal in that situation," she said, ruling out any attempt to alter the result.

"There are a lot of 'what ifs'. Me falling off - was that because I'd lost my focus? Would I have done that anyway?"

But her performance director, 1976 Olympic pentathlon silver medallist Jan Bartu, could barely contain himself when I first spoke to him about the incident, and had only calmed a fraction by the time we talked on the record.

"Katy's riding has been compromised by the judges' decision and she lost focus. She could picture herself fighting for the medal and it has been taken away from her," he said, shaking his head.

"The director of riding believes he has done everything right. We all know that is not the case. It was a massive error of judgement and unfortunately we pay the price."

The director of riding, Philip Harland - father of British pentathlete Georgina - does indeed believe he did everything right.

As soon as the incident had occurred, I went to speak to him. He immediately explained the situation from his point of view, told me he was "content" with the decisions made, and rubbished any suggestion that the officials could have had an adverse impact on Livingston's round.

He did, though, have the indignant air of a man who knew he was about to get a whole heap of flak.

Harland felt Livingston had enough time to make a choice about what to do. Bartu told me Harland should try stopping a horse in that length of time, and see if it's possible.

As the athletes prepared for the next and final event, the run-and-shoot, the British team - Bartu and team manager Dominic Mahony - confronted Harland and his officials.

Philip Harland (left) and Dominic Mahony

Equestrian event manager Philip Harland, left, faces down Team GB's Dominic Mahony

When Livingston subsequently rounded off her disappointing run-and-shoot performance, then walked solemnly away from the finish line to pack up her things alone, it made for a horrendous conclusion.

The British team had already struggled with world number one Heather Fell suffering from a virus. That the Brits still managed to win a team silver medal is a miracle, and owes a lot to Fell's superb run-and-shoot to claw her way up to ninth place.

"I was watching Katy's round and I felt sick when I saw what happened to her," Fell told me.

Fell has already suggested the prospect of London 2012 may not be enough to keep her in the sport, and she said moments like Livingston's agonising fall add to her worries over whether to continue as a pentathlete.

"In the middle of the fencing I felt so ill that I was ready to retire right then and there," she joked.

"But watching Katy, it shows this sport is so up and down. You could train for three years and that could happen, or your electronic target could break down in the final."

After the final, the British pentathlon team therefore has one athlete who came within a whisker of the world title only for at best an error with the course, and at worst a judging debacle, to throw a spanner in the works.

And it has another who, having seen that happen, thinks giving up her position as number one in the world rankings and quitting the sport is an option.

To go home with that end product after a major event on home soil is appalling.

Celebrate the team silver medal all you like - and the performance of 19-year-old Freyja Prentice, in finishing 15th, is hugely promising for 2012 - but a competition that should be motivating our stars to push on for the London Games instead left Livingston calling it "a waste of a day".

Moreover, those moments of madness on the show jumping course have cost the organisers of British pentathlon a great deal.

The only hope pentathlon had of making a dent in the sports news, on the same night that Usain Bolt and Jess Ennis were romping to victories in Berlin, was to crown a British world champion.

With that accolade comes recognition and the possibility of increased sponsorship and finance, more resources, a stronger production line of future pentathletes, and most importantly the confidence to go out and reproduce the result next time.

Instead, the sport is even disappearing off the radar of its own top competitors.

It will be terrible if Fell decides she doesn't need three years of hard training for a day's uncertainty in the lap of the equine gods, because she's a top athlete and deserves better.

But I'm not sure I could blame her, and I'm not sure Katy Livingston would either.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Very interesting article Ollie, enjoyed all your blogs about the 3 events in London at the weekend.

    I was dissapoined that the BBC didn't give this event more coverage but considering what happened it is probably a good thing in the end.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's interesting that all the press articles I have read assumed Katy would have won the competition if she had got a clear round, but until she has got to grips with this new format, I feel she would have still had the same problems with the shooting. Would that have hurt more; going into the final event with a clear lead and slipping from gold to mid table?

    It is interesting also to note that, after the first buzzer calling her to stop went, she carried on round the corner and started presenting at the jump. The quick thinking of the officials; pressing the buzzer, actually prevented her from getting eliminated for jumping the fence whilst the course was officially stopped. This seems to have been overlooked by everyone.

    It was all a horrible shame, because Katy is clearly a talent who can go all the way; but is she ready to be world champion yet with her ride and shoot as they are?

    Good luck in the future.

  • Comment number 3.

    It is so important that reporters take the time to understand the sports they cover better. For the smaller sport like modern pentathlon, which journalists covers once in a blue moon, commentary or press articles are so often full of glib statements that can seriously undermine the sport itself.

    The lack of understanding of the riding phase in the Pentathlon is a prime example. If a rider has a poor round the blame is virtually always laid at the horse's door with comments like 'he/she drew a poor horse'. Occasionally this is the case but mostly it is poor riding. After all, these horses have been tested over the same course and deemed of a suitable standard.

    At the weekend unfortunately Katy Livingston made an error. Either she did not hear the bell or choose to stop. It was clear at the time and a look at the video confirms that, despite having sufficient opportunity to stop, she was going to jump the fence, while the course was stopped. Fortunately they did press the bell again or the outcome would have been so much worse.

    Reporting it as judging failure or 'buzzer calamity' makes the sport appear amateur, which is extremely unfair - especially at a time when the sport is fighting for its Olympic life.

  • Comment number 4.

    I would like to add to the debate without rejecting most of what has been written already.
    The rider in question had jumped clear upto the point in question. As far as I could see, she was completely focussed on the task in hand, which was cementing her lead in this World Championship event. She was jumping accurately and in a good rhythm and as she had not 'touched a twig' she would not have been expecting a warning buzzer. After jumping the previous fence, she had to make a 180 degree turn before the treble and consequently would not have had a clue that the next fence was being rebuilt. This furore could have been avoided if if the person responsible for sounding the warning buzzer had done just that immediately after Miss Livingston had jumped the previous fence, rather than waiting for her to turn and start to kick her horse into the treble.
    (Even better , if the officials had spotted that the pole was off before the commencement of the round.)
    Olympicwatcher33 -Trying to put forward a case that the officials did her a favour is a bit ironic. Maybe, ultimately they did but that was the least that they could have done as they were responsible for this situation arosing. For the Director of Riding to state that he was 'content' with what happened is absurd and it would have been more reasonable if he had apologised in acknowledgement of the mistakes made by him and/or his staff in addition to pointing out that the rider seemed to be acting naively.
    Pentfollower, I seem to recall reading that Katy Livingston, herself, stated that she wasn't necessarily denied a medal by this, as she is aware that her combined event is still inconsistent. However, we will never know ....but, as you are clearly a close follower of the sport you will be aware that her performance in the fencing on Sunday far exceeded anything that she has previously achieved at that level of competition. Who is to say she could not have done something similar in the combined event ? It is a shame that she wasnt given that opportunity.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hello all, and thanks for the comments.

    #2 pentfollower - You're correct that there shouldn't be any assumption Katy would definitely have gone on to win, but she was, at that point, leading the world championship final and going clear in the third of four-and-a-bit events. #4 blueathlete makes the point that she was already outperforming her previous best in at least one other event, and GB performance director Jan Bartu later told me that the plan had been for Katy to try to build up a big lead in the first three events, giving herself what Jan called a "cushion" with which to operate in the final event, which she and he both know to be her weak point at present.

    It's difficult to present the officials' reactions with the buzzer as "quick thinking" that stopped Katy being penalised, when the situation was nothing of Katy's doing and entirely the making of those charged with officiating it.

    #3 olympicwatcher33 - While I cannot claim to be as well-versed as those able to follow every pentathlon event, I've covered it more than most reporters, and gaps in knowledge can be filled by asking the right questions of the right people.

    I realise you're talking more generally (given I've made no mention of the draw for the horses) but in this instance, my view that the buzzer incident was a bit of a farce is backed up by Team GB in its entirety, not least Jan Bartu who, along with rowing's David Tanner, is one of the longest-serving performance directors in British Olympic sport, and a pentathlon Olympic medallist.

    He knows his stuff, was practically speechless with anger when I spoke to him in the immediate aftermath, and can be directly quoted as saying the judges made "a massive error of judgement".

    I can't agree that Katy Livingston made an avoidable error, at least not when the buzzer was sounded twice (whether she'd have fallen at the subsequent jump anyway is a slightly different matter). The initial error, in preparing the course, was certainly not hers. When the buzzer sounded twice within a split second, it was confusing enough for everybody watching, let alone when sat atop a horse and leading a world championship event.

    The pressure must have been immense and I don't think anybody could have reacted any quicker. To quote Bartu again: "She was three strides away, and an animal of 650 kilos, galloping, you don't stop it like a Porsche. It's impossible."

    It does indeed make the sport appear amateur and, at that moment, I fear it was. As I say in the article it's a shame because I really enjoy the sport, take great delight in covering it, and am a fan of many of the people associated with it. But I felt the way Livingston's ride was handled was a let-down. (Albeit an understandable one in some respects since, with the course not entirely in place, pandemonium was almost bound to break out - if a swimming course in triathlon or sailing course were not 100% correct, those events would quickly implode too, and no amount of quick thinking would dig them back out of that hole.)

    It ultimately comes down to the initial error of the course not being correct, which is an error ill-befitting a world championship event.

  • Comment number 6.

    Ollie, while I agree with you that the course error should never have happened (it wasn't acceptable at a world championships), I am sorry to say that you are wrong on the riding.

    Firstly the horse is not and never does gallop around a showjumping arena (at least never intentionally) and at the point the first bell went off, a good rider is more than capable of turning their horse away from the jump - if you had talked to many of those knowledgeable about riding, who were there, they would tell you that.

    Also be accurate. It certainly wasn't a split second later and it wasn't 3 strides out from the jump. If you watch the tape, the first buzzer sounds four strides after the jump but Katy keeps going despite having plenty of opportunity to stop or not turn into the jump off the corner. She would not have been penalised for that. The second buzzer sounds a full 5 seconds after the first, by which time Katy was already locked on to the jump. And in all she took 9 strides between the first buzzer and jumping the fence.

    This may all seem pedantic given the massive disappointment Katy suffered - and you could argue needlessly if the course had been right - but it is important. You have an opportunity to tell millions of people about an event but it requires more than just throwaway lines or good quotes that happen to look good on the page. Reporting should be fair and balanced.

  • Comment number 7.

    I would just like to point out that the pole in question was in its right position at the start of the ride. It blow off in a gust of wind during Katy's ride. (So there was no error to start with making the event look amateur)

    Katy would have been unaware of this and that the arena party were trying to get the pole back on the cups without disrupting her ride. unfortunately it was clear the judge had to ring the bell/buzzer with two of the arena party still fixing the pole.

    Katy is experienced enough to know what the bell/buzzer means when it sounds. The judges gave her enough time to stop. We don't know why but Katy choose to carry on going and continued straight to the treble. Luckily the pole was back in its cups and the bell sounded again preventing her from being eleminated.

    It was an unfortunate sequence of events. Katy will bounce back from this and she will be a better athlete.

    I would also like to say a huge well done to the event organisers and their team of 200+ volunteers. It was a very well run competition - welldone.

  • Comment number 8.

    It is all very well, after the event, analysing a video over and over before saying what an athlete in any sport should or shouldnt have done. Prompted by Olympicwatcher33, I timed the time gap between the buzzer sounds and it is in fact 3 seconds. Furthermore, in the heat of the moment, although the rider did not seem to alter her chosen course, she undoubtedly stopped kicking the horse; consequently, using the number of strides taken as evidence of anything would be irrelevant.
    The issue was made even more confused by the fact that as the FIRST buzzer sounded, the fence was successfully rebuilt and the officials stepped back almost inviting the rider forwards. Nevertheless, a rider of her experience should have taken more decisive action .
    Pentathlonfan, if you were in attendance on sunday, you will know that there was nothing more than a light breeze, nowhere near enough to dislodge one of those heavy poles from their position. Furthermore , if you look closely at the video, you can see the small flags on the fences showing the wind/breeze direction was across that particular pole and the only way the pole would have come out of its position was if it had been knocked off by a horse or if it hadn't been replace correctly .
    It's all conjecture really, but one of the main points of my original post was that I could not , and still can't, for the life of me understand why the Director of Riding commented that he was 'content' with what had taken place.
    The rider made an error of judgement which hopefully she will learn from but she was put in a position where she had to make a very quick decision and this SHOULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED. However, the course builders (or whoever's job it is to check the fences are intact) either didnt spot that it was not in place or possibly hadn't replaced it correctly earlier AND the warning buzzer should have been sounded earlier to give the rider more time, in the pressure of leading the world championship, to take appropriate action. Mistakes were made, as i said , it would be nice if all concerned, including the Director of Riding took responsibility for their errors or neglect .
    I would echo the sentiment that the 5 days of this were extremely well organised and that Mr Woodbridge and the rest of his team deserve congratulating for their efforts

  • Comment number 9.

    Just to clear one thing up:
    Having spoken to the course builder I can report that the pole was attached to the fence at the start of the ride. The plastic cups holding the pole in place failed, be it due to the heat from the sun or some other reason. That is why the pole fell.

    There seems to be a lot of conjecture being banded around as fact. Not in small part from Jan Bartu, who's comments came in the heat of the moment. And moments like that can be VERY heated!

  • Comment number 10.

    Interesting.....
    firstly, wind blowing the poles out of the cups ,and now the heat of the sun possibly causing the plastic cup to fail.....well , what next? I dont know but if you were there on that day, as I was, do you think either of these were likely.
    I did notice, on the video report, the course builders fumbling the pole as they attempted to replace it..an unfortunate mistake, I'm sure. However, the next time you speak to them could you please ask the course builders if the fumbling could possibly have been due to them being put under pressure by the warning buzzer not being sounded earlier.
    Still no additional comment from the Director of Riding then ??

 

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