Fouaad Mirza's road to Tokyo: Of last-minute changes and old champions

That an arduous two years spent securing quotas for the Olympics ended with a last-minute partner change just days before the Games sums up the bumpy road to Tokyo Fouaad Mirza has come along.

“This was a very difficult decision to make. Medicott is a very sweet horse and is very dear to me. He has helped India win so many medals,” said Fouaad Mirza after picking Dajara 4 for the Olympics. Three days before the Games, the team switched back to Seigneur Medicott as the chosen steed.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

For double Asian Games silver medallist Fouaad Mirza, much of 2020 and early 2021 passed nervously pacing towards securing an individual quota at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. This past month, a long and arduous journey to qualification ended with Mirza securing Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) on both his horses — Seigneur Medicott and Dajara 4.

However, another difficult decision awaited — only one of his steeds could accompany him to Japan. On one hand was the steady companion Medicott, the double silver-medallist and a gelding touted to put on a good show in Tokyo, and on the other hand was Dajara, a 2019 addition to Mirza’s stables, brought in to groom for the Olympics after Medicott tore a ligament in one of his hind legs a little earlier.

With just over 20 days to go for the Games, Mirza made his choice public — Dajara 4 would accompany him to Tokyo.

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Seigneur Medicott (L) and Dajara 4 (R)   -  Fouaad Mirza/ IG

 

The 29-year-old looked visibly conflicted. He hadn’t yet told Medicott, who had competed in just three major events since his injury comeback, that he would be leaving him behind for the better part of the month to come.

“This was a very difficult decision to make. Medicott is a very sweet horse and is very dear to me. He has helped India win so many medals. He won’t be happy about it, but we have got a number of events lined up for him after Tokyo and he will help me fly the Tricolour high,” Mirza said in an interaction facilitated by his sponsor, the Embassy Group in late June.

Dajara brought hope to a meticulous campaign. Her show jumping capabilities, something Mirza has long considered a chink in his armour, gave him confidence, enough to place his faith in her for the marquee tournament in Tokyo, as reluctantly as that decision was made. She finished third in a CCI4*L in Baborowko, Poland, to secure an individual MER. Medicott came second in the same event, confirming his own MER. Given the focus on Dajara as favourite to head to Japan, she competed and finished second in a CCI4*S in one of the legs of the FEI Nations Cup in Strzegom, Poland.

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Fouaad Mirza with Dajara 4   -  Special Arrangement

 

What stood before the team then was a long month for Mirza and his mare. Dajara was to get a week off to recover before the two picked up their Olympic routine. The schedule mandated a seven-day quarantine in Aachen, Germany and another 10 days in Tokyo. The plus side: no restrictions on training during these periods.

Off social media for most of 2020, Mirza got back on Instagram, giving his followers glimpses of what life in training at his base in Bergedorf, Ganderkesee in Germany. What awaited those who follow him closely was Seigneur Medicott coming along for practices and quarantine. Micky, as he's fondly called, was in the picture, as a reserve, with both horses going through the paces of well-planned pre-Olympic timetable.

On July 20, after week-long whispers about Medicott pipping Dajara for that ticket to Tokyo, official communication came from the Mirza camp; the rider would fall back on his proven winner for his maiden appearance at the Games. Riders are permitted only to bring one horse as per competition guidelines, effectively quashing (hopefully postponing) the mare's Olympic debut.

“The decision to change my equine partner from Dajara 4 to Seigneur Medicott was a very difficult one. Both are champions, top pedigree horses sponsored by Embassy Group. In the last few gruelling weeks of competing and practice, I felt that Dajara had undergone a lot of pressure. I decided to go ahead with Micky who seemed to be moving better. He was my equine partner at the Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta when we won the Silver medal. Having trained with Micky in the last couple of years, I am confident that we will do our best at the Olympics.” Mirza said.

In the run-up to making the choice, there were similar travelling concerns for both horses.

"Dajara is an anxious traveller. She likes travelling with a horse that’s not as anxious as she can be sometimes. Medicott doesn't take well to changes in his surroundings. He ends up not eating well. It's not ideal for an athlete," Mirza had explained.

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It was important for the four-member entourage - consisting of Johanna Pohonen (Groom), Dr. Grigorios Maleas (Veterinarian) and Veronica Sinz (Physiotherapist) besides Mirza to provide the chosen horse with conditions as close to home as possible during their time travelling and in Tokyo.

One concern as the contingent heads to Tokyo will be the heat in Japan. While organisers have one the one hand said that 'mild' weather in Japan in July is ideal for the Games, they have also moved the marathon and race walking fixtures to the cooler locals of Sapporo - outside Tokyo.

The concerns about heat in the country were an issue even during their first stint as Olympic hosts - in 1964, when the Summer Games were effectively moved to Autumn, when heat and humidity would be more merciful.

Mirza was not too worried about the conditions when this publication broached the topic before he secured his Olympic quota. Especially so in the case of Medicott.

“Humid conditions are not ideal for horses but I see it as an advantage for Seigneur Medicott. I’ve competed with Medicott in Indonesia in similar conditions. Of course, the Asian Games difficulty level is slightly lower and cross-country distance is shorter too when compared to the Olympics but it gave us all a good indication that he can cope more than well. He ate well and travelled fine from Germany to Jakarta too. So these are positives for us."

Medicott and Dajara were not automatic choices for the rider. Despite being a proven medal winner, a ligament disruption in his hind leg ruled the former out of serious action for close to two years. Dajara was a new acquisition. Back in early 2020, Mirza was going through the paces of competition with Fernhill Facetime and Touchingwood, two horses he felt weren’t at their prime.

READ: Tokyo Olympics: Hottest summer await athletes amid COVID concerns in Japan

Dajara arrived during the last leg of Medicott’s recovery, and the mare became his go-to horse for competitions. Young and sprightly, Dajara was malleable, and Mirza wanted as much competition experience under her belt as possible. Dajara’s promising run and Medicott’s proven competition calibre meant Touchingwood — the old Tokyo choice — was left behind in the process.

Thankfully for Mirza, his own fitness regimen is not as rigid — with balance and flexibility being key areas. A balanced but sugar-free diet, weight-training and yoga has been his way to go forward, along with trying as hard as possible to not fall off the horse.

Equestrian is undoubtedly a discipline that burns a hole in the pocket and Mirza has had the financial and material backing of the Embassy Group through his journey. Jitu Virwani, the group’s Chairman and Managing Director, estimates his investment in the discipline at approximately ₹40-50 crore.

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Mirza and Medicott   -  AFP

 

Mirza is only the third Indian rider after Indrajit Lamba and Imtiaz Anees to secure an individual spot in Eventing at the Olympic Games and Virwani says it’s taken close to ₹15 crore to make this happen. He underlines the need for civilian involvement in the discipline, which is largely in control of the Indian Army.

“After the success we had in the Asian Games, several investors were willing to step forward and put in money into the sport. It is still something we need to figure out with the Equestrian Federation of India,” Virwani explains.

“India focuses on thoroughbreds — more suited for racing — than warmbloods that have better aptitude for equestrian disciplines. We’ve tried to address that by purchasing warmbloods for riders to learn on at our school. We also invested in training equipment to take the sport to children. We need to unshackle the sport from the clutches of the Army because a lot of money is being spent on horses in India without much results ,” he adds.

According to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), ₹2.26 crore has been sanctioned as the ACTC (Annual Calendar for training and competition) by the Sports Ministry to the Equestrian Federation of India for the financial year 2020-21 and 2021-22. Besides this, an out-of-pocket allowance of ₹1 lakh as part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) is expected to reach Mirza shortly.

The investments, staying away from home for over 2.5 years and a strict gruelling day-to-day routine, largely cut off from the rest of the world (due to remoteness of his base in Germany and no social media through much of it) are all pointed towards finishing on the podium in Tokyo. Besides the anxieties of qualification, Mirza has also had to stay away from family and friends in India when a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the nation.

That the country’s ace equestrian rider has blinkers on comes as no surprises. Having gone through an uncertain qualifying period by himself, he hopes the sacrifices all end up being worthwhile if he does check the biggest box of all — a medal at the Olympics.