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Olympic events

July 10, 2012

Hiroshi Hoketsu from Japan qualified for the dressage event at the Summer Olympics in London. The 71-year-old is the oldest Olympic contestant and trains in Germany.

Japan's oldest Olympian, Hiroshi Hoketsu, holding his horse Whisper, a 15-year old mare, at the Rossheide Stables in Aachen, Germany,
Image: AP

The instructions given by dressage coach Ton de Ridder snap like a whip across the warm-up area at Rossheide Stables in Aachen. "That's not enough, Hiroshi! Faster! Faster!"

But his protégé, Hiroshi Hoketsu is too experienced to let the interjections from his coach disturb is dressage exercises. The 71-year-old sits calmly in his saddle and carries out the commands without losing a beat. Everything is going according to plan.

Helpful veterinarian

In November 2011, however, things were not going his way and Hiroshi's Olympic dream was turning into a nightmare. His horse, Whisper, had gone lame. It looked like an operation was necessary. But then, a friend and veterinarian told Hiroshi to bring Whisper to Amsterdam where a treatment helped. For the first time in months, Hiroshi could participate in a tournament. But the time remaining to qualify for the Olympics was tight by the best of measures. Hiroshi needed to ride in several competitions in Portugal, Spain and France in over five consecutive weeks. "That workload is normally even difficult for a healthy horse," explains Hiroshi, "but we decided to try it anyway."

Whisper, ridden by Hiroshi Hoketsu, from Japan competing in the dressage event at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, USA
At 71, Hiroshi is the oldest OlympianImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Almost a miracle

The plan worked. By early March Hiroshi has his ticket for London. He shakes his head in disbelief every time he thinks about qualifying. "It's almost a miracle," he says. A senior citizen at the Olympic Games? But you don't notice Hiroshi's 71 years. The eyes are bright and alert; the black hair is only slightly gray; not an ounce of fat on his body. "Fortunately, my weight has never changed since I finished my studies. That was a big help to stay active in equestrian sports," he says, trying to explain why he is still a competitive sportsman. "I really don't pay much attention to keeping my weight. I eat what I like." He says he was just born with a good constitution. His Dutch coach, Ton de Ridder, however, won't let that stand. "Hiroshi is a perfectionist and very ambitious," he notes. "Mr Hoketsu lives a very healthy life, he is calorie conscious, exercises a lot, goes jogging and for walks. He does a lot for his success."

Hiroshi is meticulous. He personally plans in detail the organization and travel itineraries for his tournaments. If he didn't do that he probably would not be as successful as he is.

Ton de Ridder, dressage coach at the Rossheide Stables
Hiroshi is very meticulous, says coach Ton de RidderImage: Arne Lichtenberg

Four-time Olympian

In 1964 in Tokyo, Hiroshi took part in his first Olympics – back then, in show jumping. As his eyesight deteriorated he began having problems estimating the distances between the obstacles, so he switched to dressage. He qualified in this discipline for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and again in 2008 for Beijing, where he was already the oldest participant among the athletes. The games have changed with the times, he says. Before, just taking part was the main focus, but today he primarily wants to do well. "Many people, as well as the Japanese Olympic Committee, put a lot of money into the different sports where there is a chance to win a medal, " he points out.

Good horse – better performance

Even so, for Hiroshi, the Olympics have not lost their fascination. That's why, in 2003, he signed on with Dutchman Ton de Ridder, who operates a renowned dressage stable near Aachen, the home of CHIO, the world's premier annual equestrian event.

Hiroshi had just reached retirement age in his job and wanted to further develop his dressage skills – with success. "My performance today is better than it was before. Of course, that also has to do with the horse. A good horse brings better results. But I also feel like I'm still improving as a rider."

A stablehand looking over Hirsohi's horse, Whisper
You need a good horse for better results, says HiroshiImage: Arne Lichtenberg

Coaching after London?

In London, Hiroshi Hoketsu is just starting in the individual event. There is no Japanese dressage team, like there was in Beijing in 2008. The reason for that is the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, says Ton de Ridder. "Investors and sponsors did not come forward. They have other concerns at the moment."

Despite his age, Hiroshi has no plans to hang up his boots for good after the London Games. "Maybe I can help the Japanese dressage association as a coach," he says. That would be his third career in the arena, after show jumping and dressage. Sports help keep you young and Hiroshi Hoketsu is the living proof.

Author: Arne Lichtenberg /gb

Editor: Sarah Berning

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