Paralympics: Game changers clear hurdles

Alex Peternell during the eventing cross-country leg at the London Olympics. (Reuters)

Alex Peternell during the eventing cross-country leg at the London Olympics. (Reuters)

Pistorius reached the semifinals of the 400 metres at the Olympics, but the effect he had on the crowd and the future of organised sport was out of all proportion to that relatively modest achievement.

As Pistorius, draped in the South African flag, thanked the crowd, few among them would have been aware of how much bureaucracy he had waded through to represent his country at the London Games.

But there was a resident of the Olympic Village and a fellow member of Team South Africa who could empathise only too well. Alex Peternell is a 31-year-old former ballet dancer who was born in Roodepoort, but now lives in Bristol. He left South Africa in 1998 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional eventer.
Eventing is one of the toughest of all Olympic disciplines. It takes place over three days and tests the complex relationship between human beings and horses to the limit. In eventing, if you fall off your horse you are automatically eliminated. Fifteen riders met this fate at the Olympics, but Peternell was not one of them.

He competed with a grim determination, because he had to beat bureaucratic incompetence before being allowed to represent his country. He was hamstrung by the misalignment between the qualification date set by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) and that set by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the equestrian world governing body.

Sascoc announced its team on June 6, but then published the following statement on its website: "The final team to travel to London will be announced on July 4 after the qualification deadline for all sporting codes comes to an end."

Too late
Peternell had qualified a few days before the FEI deadline, but Sascoc told him he was too late.

Peternell sank his life savings into fighting the decision, hiring legal representatives to argue his case through the Council for Arbitration in Sport. He gained a Pyrrhic victory at first, when Sascoc attempted to deal with the embarrassment by not sending anyone to take up the one place allocated to South Africa in eventing. Peternell appealed and the council instructed Sascoc to select him and allow him to compete.

That decision was made on July 25. The dressage competition, the first of the three disciplines, was due to be held on July 28. Peternell had 48 hours to sort out his accreditation and get his horse and tack to the stables in Greenwich. He drove his lorry from the West Country and spent the first night in accommodation set aside for grooms. He moved into the Olympic Village on the eve of the dressage competition. Not surprisingly, his mind was elsewhere when he trotted his horse, Asih, into the ring at Greenwich.

He said: "I'm a professional athlete and I'm used to coping with pressure … But I guess it's fair to say that the pressures of qualifying and going through the legal process had an effect. I made a few errors of judgment in the dressage."

Underfoot conditions
Next up was the cross-country event on a track with difficult underfoot conditions. Peternell said: "The track in Greenwich Park, from an aesthetic perspective, was spectacular and the going in a straight line was very good. But if you got off the straight it could be treacherous and horses were falling between jumps. I made the decision to concentrate on getting round, so my time was quite slow, but I felt I needed to show South Africans at home that we had a rider capable of completing."

With two of the three disciplines done, there was finally time on the last day of competition for Peternell to enjoy the atmosphere. He said: "When it came to the showjumping, I had got my composure back. I used to dance professionally, so I've always been comfortable in front of an audience. It was a big crowd and I was the first rider to go clear, but to be honest, the vast majority of people were just waiting for the big names and I don't think they knew or cared about who I was."

Or what he had achieved, for that matter. Peternell's case has set a crucial precedent. In 2000 the National Olympic Committee of South Africa, as Sascoc was then known, refused to send the South African men's hockey team to the Sydney Olympics, despite the fact that they had met the qualification criteria. Following the Peternell judgment, sporting bodies and individuals now have clear recourse in the event of a unilateral decision by a governing body.

It is a judgment that, in its own way, is just as significant as the one that allowed Pistorius to compete against able-bodied athletes. Neither man came close to winning a medal, but their stories will be told long after more successful athletes have been forgotten.