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Olympics: Maverick Nicholson's a sad loss for Rio eventing showdown

Andrew Nicholson prepares his up-and-coming mount Jetset for a galloping session. Photo / Andrew Alderson
Andrew Nicholson prepares his up-and-coming mount Jetset for a galloping session. Photo / Andrew Alderson

Andrew Nicholson might be the cruellest omission from New Zealand's Olympic team.

With a week until the start of the eventing at Rio, Nicholson's stretch from Los Angeles 1984 as a Games selection is about to be broken.

He has endured a series of altercations with the governing body, Equestrian Sports New Zealand, since the 2014 World Games. At that event, he grabbed vet Ollie Pynn and shifted him across a corridor because he was upset with the monitoring of his horse Nereo.

Nicholson, who turns 55 tomorrow, was removed from the high performance squad and has not agreed to re-integration terms. Much of the rumpus involves bureaucracy - Nicholson hadn't filled out the necessary paperwork - but there were also concerns about how he would fit back into an environment with high performance coach Erik Duvander. Duvander and Nicholson clashed over the World Games incident, but Duvander has previously said he'd willingly start afresh.

ESNZ would not want to court disruption in their Rio build-up. "Harmony" appears to be the motto as they pursue medals, something they are in contention to earn given Sir Mark Todd is ranked sixth, Jonelle Price 22nd, Clarke Johnstone 32nd and Jock Paget 44th. However, sometimes mavericks or geniuses need harnessing to incorporate their brilliance. Nicholson's contribution to three team medals in 1992, 1996 and 2012 is evidence.

Retaining the $9.11 million of taxpayer investment in the sport over the Rio Olympic cycle also depends on medals. That's the only way to eradicate doubts the world No 9 Nicholson's omission is the right decision.

Nicholson suffered a broken neck last August but has recovered to start in eight three- or four-star events this season, with six top-10 finishes. They include winning this month's three-star event at Barbury Castle, albeit over an abbreviated cross-country course, on his top mount Nereo. That form is better than any of the Rio selections.

ESNZ would counter by saying their best four riders finished in the top 10 at Badminton, an event Nicholson opted out of to rehabilitate. Nicholson would riposte with the fact he had fifth- and seventh-placed finishes at the most recent four-star event at Luhmuhlen in mid-June.

Another obstacle lurks in the reinstatement debate - precedents. Todd was accused of cocaine use by Britain's Sunday Mirror ahead of the Sydney Games but competed because the NZOC said he had never failed a drugs test. ESNZ also went to legal lengths to get Paget reinstated after his horse, Clifton Promise, tested positive for the banned drug reserpine after winning Burghley in 2014. His lawyers proved a 'no fault or negligence' defence and his penalty was 'time already served'. The title passed to Nicholson.

"They won't be whistling me up [to Rio]," Nicholson said about ESNZ. "But since my injury I've decided I'm happy doing things the way I am. I'm comfortable with my situation and the team I've got at home.

"I've been almost two years without the team squad training and I'm happy to compare my results with anyone.

"I'm always available. I knew about a year ago, when they said I wasn't ready to be put back into the team situation, that it was pretty much a one-way ticket out."

An emailed statement from ESNZ justified their selection process.

"Andrew submitted an initial athlete application which registered his interest, but then did not complete a number of the other requirements. As with any other rider, we followed these requirements up and reminded Andrew of them multiple times. Those who didn't meet these prerequisites and deadlines cannot be considered.

"We are pleased to see Andrew back and competing after such a dreadful accident.

"Had Andrew completed all the conditions of nomination, we would have been in a position where we would have had to consider Andrew's health and fitness (as we did for every other rider)... we didn't get to a point where this needed to be considered. The door remains open for future dialogue from our end.

"We are very confident in this team... it's not necessarily a given that Andrew would have been in from a performance perspective."

Other Olympic bad luck stories

1. Roy Williams

The 1966 Commonwealth Games champion could have attended four Olympics (Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City) if modern selection policies applied, but bureaucratic bungling or injury curtailed each chance. He later covered Games as a journalist.

2. Bruce Biddle

Edged into fourth in the 1972 cycling road race, Biddle was promoted to third after Spaniard Jaime Huelamo's disqualification for doping. Games and cycling authorities refused to award Biddle the bronze because he was never tested, despite offering.

3. Rod Dixon

The 5000m photo finish in 1976 saw Dixon miss bronze by 0.12s. Controversy reigned because German Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand fell to the line (athletes had to finish with their bodies at least 1m above the ground). New Zealand officials decided not to protest.

4. The 1980 Moscow team*

The National government decided New Zealand would back the American boycott, generated by the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Some saw this as hypocritical; New Zealand kept trading with the USSR while many athletes lost their only Games opportunity. *There were four exceptions.

5. Valerie Young (nee Sloper)

Throwing the shot, Young finished fourth in 1960 and 1964. She was 3cm off bronze at Rome behind Soviet Tamara Press, East German Johanna Lüttge and American Earlene Brown. At Tokyo, she was 19cm behind Press, East German Renate Culmberger and Soviet Galina Zybina.

- Herald on Sunday

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Covers sport across NZME's print, digital and radio brands.

Andrew writes and broadcasts on cricket and the Olympic disciplines for NZME's print, digital, video and radio platforms. His most recent project followed New Zealand sportspeople competing in Europe during the 2015 northern summer. He has attended four cricket World Cups, three Olympics and regularly works as a correspondent overseas.

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