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Henrik Ankarcrona on the Swedish success, the will to win – and the Olympic format: “The jumping community needs to come together to find a way forward”

Monday, 30 August 2021

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Henrik Ankarcrona. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.


Text © World of Showjumping



Team Sweden – captained by Chef d’Equipe Henrik Ankarcrona – was the talk of Tokyo with their brilliant performances that put them at the top of the podium. What is their secret to success? How big of a role did their reserve rider Rolf-Göran Bengtsson play? How does Ankarcrona feel about the Olympic format? Here, Ankarcrona – also a member of the FEI Jumping Committee – tells World of Showjumping all about the Swedes’ confidence going into the Games, how the reserve rider can play a crucial role in a team’s failure or success, and how, in the aftermath of the Olympics, the jumping community needs to come together to find a way forward.

“We wanted to win”

Preparing for Olympic Games, the Swedes were confident. “Coming into 2021, we knew that we had the possibility of going to Tokyo with the strongest team that Sweden had ever lined up,” Ankarcrona tells. “The riders knew it themselves, I knew it, and I think that made everyone even more focused. Each move we made was with an eye on the Olympics. The riders carefully considered what would be best for their horses – down to every single detail. We knew that if everyone came to the Games very well prepared and in super shape, we would have a good chance to step to the top of the podium. Eventually, this is what happened: The riders and their teams all did a fantastic job and supported each other in the process.” 


Each move we made was with an eye on the Olympics


“We wanted to win,” Ankarcrona continues. “And we believed we had the capability and experience to do so. Obviously, when you set the bar that high, there is also a big risk of failure. However, we knew we could do it.” 

The selfless reserve

For these Games, it was the 2008 Olympic Vice Champion Rolf-Göran Bengtsson who was selected as reserve rider for the team – a decision Ankarcrona believes made a huge difference. “I think the reserve rider plays a huge part in a team’s failure or success,” Ankarcrona says.


In our case, Rolf really completed the team


“In our case, Rolf really completed the team. Even for riders like Malin, Peder and Henrik, having Rolf there so selflessly – contributing with all his experience, knowledge, calmness and support, but without ever telling anyone what to do –  made a huge difference. Rolf has a fantastic way of building confidence, which is important even for the experienced riders we had on the team. Rolf’s groom Minna was also incredible, and was engaged not only in her own horse but supported when the others were jumping. If I had two extra gold medals, I would give one to Rolf and one to Minna.” 

H&M Indiana, H&M All In and King Edward 

With H&M Indiana, H&M All In and King Edward, the Swedes had exceptional horse power for the Tokyo Olympics. “Indiana is at a good age and has a lot of experience; she is only getting better and better,” Ankarcrona says. “Malin knows her so well and can ride her more against the clock than before. With Indiana, everything about the timing was right. With Peder, we were obviously thinking a lot about the choice of horse but All In was the first option. The time frame was a bit against us when it came to getting him in shape though. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic and the EHV-virus did not make that any easier with the forced show breaks that were created. All along we wanted Allan on the team, and at his last show prior to the Olympics he gave us the right answers."


At the moment we have fantastic horses, riders and owners


"When it comes to Henrik, we knew at the end of last year that King Edward could be a good alternative for Mary Lou if she would not get back into shape so the backup plan was there. Henrik has been saying all along that King Edward is one of the best horses he ever worked with. When Henrik said they would be ready, I believed him. I know Henrik and the way he spoke about this horse, he got me convinced from the start – and he did not let me down! What they did was for the history books,” Ankarcrona says.

The secret of the Swedes

“I don’t believe there is one,” Ankarcrona laughs when asked about the Swedes’ secret to success. “At the moment we have fantastic horses, riders and owners – all of them have a huge amount of experience. Furthermore, we work really well together.”


I believe the difference comes down to confidence and details


“In the end though, it is all on the horses and riders when they enter the ring,” Ankarcrona points out. “It is a huge amount of pressure, and they are all alone in it. But leading up to that moment where they walk into the ring, they should be confident that everything has been done – not only by themselves but also from everyone around them. I believe that affects their riding. From the top ten countries, the horses and riders are all good enough to win – so I believe the difference comes down to confidence and details.” 

“I think we managed everything right on this occasion; next time it can be a different story,” Ankarcrona continues. “In Tokyo, everything came together for us. The performances in themselves are perhaps not that enjoyable; it is so much pressure – but we had a great time!” 

Bringing facts to the table

In the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics, equestrian sports have again been subject to negative attention with various animal protection groups arguing that horses should not be competing at the Games. Parallel to this anti-equestrian activism, the jumping community finds itself in a debate of its own about the Olympic format – which was introduced for Tokyo – where the welfare of the horses is centre stage. 

“I believe that horse welfare is the number one priority for absolutely everyone involved in this sport,” Ankarcrona says. “In my opinion, we really need to analyse why we had issues in Tokyo. Is the format to blame? I don’t know. The format cannot force anyone into anything. You could potentially also end up with the same situations with four riders on the team and a drop-score: If you have a normal Nations Cup and the first rider on the team gets eliminated, it is also necessary that the remaining three finish – or the team is out. I think it is up to each individual rider to make the right decision and put their horse first. Of course, when you are part of a team, that can be tough but that’s part of doing sport.”


I believe that horse welfare is the number one priority for absolutely everyone involved in this sport


“Nearly everyone is criticising the format, saying that it does not work – but I don’t entirely agree to that,” Ankarcrona says. “I am not saying that I prefer this format, and it’s not perfect – but in my opinion it’s not right to say that it did not work, because the best ones were on the podium and the best ones were in the finals. If you had a fence down, you were not in the final.” 

“Were these Olympics worse than the previous ones? Do we have statistics to support that? Was this easier to follow? There are a lot of questions that need answers, and we have to know facts before we start discussing. I want to urge everyone to really think through which factors were not working,” Ankarcrona says. “What do we want for our sport? I am sure we all have the common goal of bringing the sport forward, and we want to stay in the Olympic family – so what can we do together to improve the format? In my opinion, an urgent matter to discuss is the Certificate of Capability. I think the standard of the weaker countries must become higher.”


We want to stay in the Olympic family – so what can we do together to improve the format?


“I also believe that we have to look at the so-called ‘blood rule’ again and see if we can make that more comprehensible for the general public. For example, in sports like hockey or football, if a player is bleeding, they stop straight away. Though our sport is unique in many ways and cannot be directly compared, how can we justify a horse bleeding in the ring?” Ankarcrona asks.

A way forward 

Despite the fact that the Olympic format changes have been debated on numerous previous occasions, and eventually were voted through against the advice of some of the world’s best riders, Ankarcrona believes that the people of the sport will be heard when the subject yet again is being discussed. “I am confident that everyone in the FEI Jumping Committee will listen to all the stakeholders, and that there will be a good and transparent discussion,” Ankarcrona says – “However, the Jumping Committee is not the decision maker here. It is the Committee’s job to listen and to come up with a good proposal, but it does not decide on the end result. This is the IOC we are talking about: In the end, we need to convince them about what we want and for which reasons. We have to find a way forward.” 


We have so much that makes our sport unique


“I think we have a fantastic sport. It involves an incredible animal, which also is an athlete, a competition with both men and women competing against each other – we have so much that makes our sport unique. Furthermore, we have been a part of the Games for a very long time – since 1912,” Ankarcrona says. “Now, we have to deal with these issues together, as a community, so we can show the world what a fantastic sport we have. Because we want to stay in the Olympic family; we want to be part of the Games.”


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