Our Equine Vets do us proud at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

19 Aug 2021

Representing your country at the highest level of your profession is usually the stuff that dreams are made of, but for five world-class Australian equine veterinarians, it’s a whole lot more than that – it’s reality.

Despite the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being held under a very different set of circumstances this year, the athletes and their support teams who made it there, after years of sacrifice and hard work, were just plain grateful that it went ahead. In fact, we’re all feeling pretty lucky to have witnessed the Olympic Games this year, given the current state of global affairs.

With much of the world in varied states of COVID-19 restrictions or lockdown, and the associated hardship that this brings to communities, the Olympics gave many of us something to cheer about. The opportunity to share the excitement and anticipation of the Olympic athletes from our loungerooms provided an ‘escape’ for many of us at a time when some form of respite was just what we needed.

The equestrian events at any Olympic Games are historically amongst the most highly anticipated by spectators, and the Tokyo 2020 games provided no exception to this. Millions of spectators from around the world – including those that fit neatly into the ‘horse crazy’ category and those that have never ridden in their lives, tuned in to witness these noble creatures and their elite riders perfectly execute dressage routines, clear jumps over 1.6m high, with spreads of up to 2m, and undergo the ultimate test of endurance on the eventing course.

But behind these equestrian teams, stands some of the greatest minds in the international equine veterinary scene, and we’re extremely proud to call them our colleagues. These veterinarians are charged with the enormous responsibility of ensuring the welfare and peak condition of these equine athletes before, during and after the games, and often under conditions involving considerable environmental stress.

Dedicating much of their lives to achieving the highest level of knowledge and skill in their field, Olympic veterinarians celebrate every Olympic performance, and every Olympic medal with the equestrian team - proud to have provided the highest level of veterinary care, as the goal posts in equine sports medicine are moved further and further forward with each international event.

The vets behind the success

This year, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Dr Penny Dow, Dr Christopher Elliott, Dr Kirsten Neil, Dr Nathan Anthony and Dr Robin Bell provided veterinary support for equestrian teams.

Dr Penny Dow was front of house at the veterinary clinic, providing a link between Team Vets and the Organising Committee/FEI Vets. Penny was also a roving veterinarian on the cross-country course, and was reportedly one of the busiest vets at the venue.

“The Olympics have been so much fun! It’s a real privilege to be here, given Australia’s travel restrictions. As part of my position working for the vet clinic, I have been able to assist team vets in ensuring that their equine athletes get the best care possible. It has been amazing to create, and re-new, relationships with some exceptional veterinary colleagues from all around the world, and of course to see these amazing equine athletes perform at the highest level here at the Tokyo Olympics has been awesome!”

Dr Penny Dow

Dr Christopher Elliot was the Veterinary Services Supervisor at the games. In this role, Christopher was responsible for ensuring that all veterinary preparations were in order, as well as managing the veterinary volunteers and preparing for veterinary cover on the cross-country course.

Christopher travelled to Japan well in advance of horse arrivals and was onsite at the Olympic venue from the start of May.

“It’s been a privilege to have been involved in the veterinary preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Despite the very challenging circumstances, our veterinary team did an outstanding job, especially out on cross country.”

Dr Christopher Elliott

Dr Kirsten Neil was a Limb Sensitivity Examining Veterinarian for the Tokyo 2020 Games, where she worked alongside Dr Tracy Turner from the USA. In this role, Kirsten’s primary focus was working within the discipline of jumping, but she did arrive in Tokyo just in time to also provide supervision and assistance in the cool-down area at the cross-country.

“Being at another Olympics was a privilege, and once again, an amazing experience.”

Dr Kirsten Neil

Dr Nathan Anthony travelled with the Australian Equestrian Team as one of the Team Vets, providing veterinary care to the Australian team horses, ensuring their optimal health, welfare and performance.

“Attending the Tokyo Olympics and supporting the Australian Equestrian Team surpassed my experience from previous championships. Tokyo was incredibly special, not only because of the podium success of our eventing team, but also being part of the biggest global sporting event run in the face of this COVID pandemic. Everybody at the venue and village were aware of the gravity of these games. The vibe amongst athletes, support crew and officials from every nation was of camaraderie, support and celebration.  However, always topping the team vet experience is the opportunity to assist Australia’s best riders and horses deliver on their championship performance.”

Dr Nathan Anthony

Dr Robin Bell also travelled with the Australian Equestrian Team as one of the team vets, providing veterinary care to the Australian team horses.

Teamwork under challenging conditions

The Tokyo 2020 Equestrian events were held across two venues – Baji Koen Equestrian Park in the west of Tokyo and Sea Forest Island, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, approximately one hour away from the Equestrian Park. The main stadium at Baji Koen Park hosted the dressage and jumping, and the cross country was held on Sea Forest Island.

Held between 23rd July and the 8th August, in the heat of the Japanese summer, it was a combination of high temperatures, and humidity levels approaching 70% that made for conditions described by many athletes as ‘brutal’ for competition purposes.

Having come up against grueling heat and humidity at many previous international events, equine veterinarians have benefited from learning a lot from the past.

On the ground in Tokyo, Dr Elliot reported, “In the face of extremely challenging climatic conditions, numerous management strategies were instigated to ensure the best standards of equine health, welfare and performance were maintained. Air-conditioned stables, misting fans, ice water cooling stations, altered training schedules, competition times at night, early morning cross country and proactive education of grooms, riders, veterinarians and team members regarding optimum heat mitigation techniques were all instigated to best avoid heat related problems.”

The veterinary facilities at the games were second to none, with “a brand-new veterinary hospital located onsite with full surgical and medical facilities, comprehensive laboratory and the latest diagnostic imaging equipment; all manned by a team of international and Japanese veterinary specialists”, said Christopher.

“A large number of veterinarians from all over the world were appointed by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee and the FEI to ensure the health, welfare and safety of the equine athletes taking part in the Games.”

Dr Christopher Elliot and Dr Penny Dow have stayed on in Tokyo, for the Paralympic Games, where they look forward to working with Dr Janine Dwyer from Brisbane, who is traveling with the Australian Para Equestrian Team as their team vet.

Here’s to you, our Australian equine vets, for achieving such amazing heights in your careers, and for the vital role you’ve played in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. In keeping the equine athletes safe and in peak condition, ensuring their performance at the highest level, you have made it possible for so many individuals to achieve their Olympic dreams.

What a wonderful thing to have contributed to, and what a humbling celebration to be a part of. Thank you for giving us all something to aspire to, and for shining the light on one of the many fantastic experiences made possible with a veterinary degree, a love of horses, and a whole lot of determination. We’re proud of you.

Dr Kaylene Jones

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