Little over a year ago, Fouaad Mirza won a couple of equestrian silvers at the Asian Games. It had been a while before anyone else had won one, let alone two. Delighted but dissatisfied (the archetype of an athlete), Mirza was already talking about the Olympics.
Only two people in the sport before him had qualified for the quadrennial event from India. Never matter, he dreamed. With pedigree and purse offering him the privilege, he did so without considering, even remotely, what if he couldn’t and subsequently didn’t.
A year and some went by. It included an Arjuna Award, a snafu by the Equestrian Federation of India and an injury to his beloved Seigneur Medicott (his horse).
The dream seemed farther, owing partly to the most complicated qualification system devised by man. Numbers were all the trend: permutations gained prominence and combinations yielded little calm. Rollercoasters induced lesser nausea.
Despite it all, on Friday, November 22, he inched within one hurdle of ‘making it’. Mirza has virtually qualified for the 2020 Olympics in the equestrian’s eventing category. He only has to wait till December 31 for the official confirmation from the International Federation for Equestrian Sports before booking his tickets to Tokyo.
The interview call was made expecting no return, and if returned, an ecstatic voice was expected to entertain. Wrong on both counts.
Mirza collected his call immediately and spoke matter-of-factly. None of the whooping which had accompanied the interaction after he had won the Arjuna Award.
“It comes as great news, but we need to focus now more than ever,” he told DH moments after finding out about his qualification from Germany. “This is just one of the boxes that I needed ticked. I have a long way to go.”
Insatiable came to mind, and a few more minutes on the telephone and it was all too apparent why, but it also became clear later that it was a case of not wanting to count his chickens before they hatch.
“Very people really (stressed) believed in me. I had a dream of making it to the Olympics and they scoffed. Of course, I worked with some of the finest people you will meet and they supported me all along, but there were more who didn’t,” he says in an accent all too old-school convent Bangalore.
“They didn’t think I would make it to the Olympics. They wanted me to dream small like everyone else. I wouldn’t let them dictate my dreams. I was always of the opinion that dreaming realistically would result in a mediocre life. I wasn’t ready to settle for that.” Settle he didn’t, not even when the EFI failed to nominate the Indian team for the Olympic qualification tournament.
India were scheduled to participate in the France leg of the special qualifiers for the Olympics. Had they, there was every likelihood of them finishing third ahead of the eventual third-place finishers Thailand, who had ended with bronze in the Asian Games when India won silver.
Basically, three team slots were up for grabs after Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand qualified for the Olympics through the 2018 World Equestrian Games. Japan earned the host spot, leaving India, China and Thailand to battle it out for two remaining quotas for the Asia-Pacific/ Oceania Zone from Group G.
Alas, a ‘financial constraint’ meant EFI didn’t field a team, forcing Mirza and the rest to look at individual combinations. And only two slots were available. “Since two countries from our zone decided to participate in the team event, we got lucky. Even though my scores (64 from six qualifying events) would have been enough to top them, I would have had to wait longer and perhaps more anxiously too,” said Mirza.
Mirza’s closest rival in his group - Thomas Ho from Hong Kong - has seven points so far, and he has only till December 31 to upstage Mirza. Impossible is putting it mildly, but Mirza didn’t want to focus on what he couldn’t control.
“I am giving my horses a bit of a breather but after that, I will be putting them through the drills. I will be running events with them either in March in Portugal or in Italy in April” he announced before venturing into the characteristics of each horse - Fernhill Facetime and Touchingwood.
“Fernhill and I clicked immediately. We ride great together. Touchingwood and I have been riding together for a while but he is the toughest horse I have had to ride. He is very quirky and he won’t budge if he doesn’t want to. When he does though, he’s something else.”
It’s a tricky business, picking horses with a nose for their moods, but Mirza, a seventh-generation horse owner, wasn’t concerned about the horses for now. He knew he’d have the right one on the day. What did bother him, though, was how the EFI went about the sport.
“I think they have done the best they could. They were very good with my registration and so on, but I can’t help but feel like they can get better. They believe in sending teams to the Olympics only if we win medals,” he said.
“In the past, that would have worked because not many went to the Olympics with the hope of more than enjoying the ceremony.
“Now, the kids aren’t there for a headcount. They are there to win. I feel like they should be sent to international events with the hope that they will. Only then will they have enough exposure to succeed at the highest level.”
Feels like he is staging a revolution, one from within and one without.