Olympics April 2012

Hiroshi Hoketsu

Septuagenerian eyes London—AND Rio!

• First Olympic appearance was in 1964
• After Seoul flop, came 34th in Beijing
• “Miracle” saves horse Whisper’s legs

The first time Hiroshi Hoketsu competed in an Olympic Games, most of the other athletes who will be at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had not even been born.

Hoketsu will be 71 when he trots his chestnut mare, Whisper, out into the arena at London’s Greenwich Park on 2 August to take part in the dressage event, making him—so far in the selection process for athletes—the oldest competitor this year.

And, speaking to ACUMEN by telephone from a training facility in the German city of Stuttgart, Hoketsu would not completely rule out the possibility of representing Japan at the next Olympics. If he is selected for the Rio de Janeiro games, he would beat the record for the oldest contestant, set by Swedish marksman Oscar Swahn at the 1920 games in Antwerp, at the age of 72 years and 280 days.

Still, it is something of a miracle that he will be competing in London, Hoketsu said.

“It has been a big surprise to me because Whisper has had problems with her legs since March of last year”, he explained. “She was treated by a number of different doctors, but nothing seemed to be working and she was scheduled for an operation in November”.

Surgery just a few months ahead of the games, and the time it would take to recuperate, would have made it touch-and-go whether the horse would have been ready, while Hoketsu says it would have been impossible to bring in a replacement horse with such little time to prepare.

“At that stage, I had totally given up on London”, he admitted.

A chance introduction to a specialist horse chiropractor and another veterinarian in the Netherlands put Whisper on the road to recovery and a series of competitive events in Portugal, Spain and France have convinced Hoketsu that a mount he has groomed for this moment for five years is ready.

“The horse did very well; she maintained herself and got better as the tour went on”, he said. “It’s a miracle”.

Hoketsu first rode a horse at the age of 12 when at a summer camp in Karuizawa. After being led around a ring once on the back of a horse, he went with three friends into the town and hired horses from a stable.

“I reached up and pulled down a branch from a tree and used it as a whip”, he recalled. “The horse started to run and I was so happy”.

Back in Tokyo, he told his father about his “fantastic experience” and was soon a member of a riding club.

His first Olympic experience came in the 1964 games in Tokyo, where he competed as a show jumper. At the age of 35, he turned to the dressage competition but was unable to qualify for the Olympics again until 1988.

That event was something of a disaster as quarantine problems meant his regular horse was not allowed to go to Seoul and a replacement horse was only provided 24 hours before he was due to compete.

Nevertheless, Hoketsu made it to Beijing in 2008, where he finished in joint 34th place.

“I’ve always liked riding and the thing about competing is that you have to communicate with the horse at the same time as you control it”, he said. “But if you kill the will and wishes of the horse, then you have nothing. There needs to be a balance. I find that kind of communication very interesting”.

A retired pharmaceuticals executive, Hoketsu has lived in Germany for the past nine years and is looking forward to competing in London—a city in which he has not spent a great deal of time.

“I believe the German, the Dutch and the Danish teams will be strong again this year”, he said.

Hoketsu says he is in excellent health and that he believes he would be capable of taking part in the 2016 games, when Whisper will be 19 years old.

“That may be too old to take part in competitive dressage and it would be very difficult to find and train a new horse”, he admits. “But we’ll see”.