“If I rated all of the Olympic Games I’ve been to,” he declared, “Barcelona would definitely be at the bottom. The officials were unpleasant and inefficient, and getting in and out of the press village was worse than getting through U.S. immigration from Britain. Our bus drivers never knew which way to go—they’d be heading 100 miles per hour down the motorway toward France instead of going in the right direction. And the show jumping final ended up with the fences being blown down by a storm.”
Four years later, Smith found himself in Atlanta for the 1996 Games.
“We were expecting Atlanta to be extremely hot and humid,” Smith said, “as we’re expecting in Hong Kong this year. But it was actually a lot better. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed by the conditions and arrangements. The stabling was first-class, as were all the provisions they made for the horses to cope with the heat, such as water sprays. The footing was wonderful. There was a huge rainstorm one day that flooded everything, including the press tent. Yet just a half-hour later, the ground was perfectly jumpable.”
Smith said his most vivid memory from Atlanta is the stadium jumping round of New Zealand rider Blyth Tait, winner of the individual gold in three-day eventing on a horse named Ready Teddy.
“I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a better round,” Smith marveled. “It was sympathetic yet determined, and it certainly didn’t do the horse any harm, because he went on to win a world championship afterward. Blyth Tait and Mark Todd are two of the finest riders I’ve ever seen.”
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Smith said, “would probably rank right alongside Los Angeles as the most enjoyable of the lot. The weather, the venues… and the Australians, who can be pretty sour at times, were absolutely on their best behavior and very welcoming.”
Conversely, Smith pronounced the 2004 Athens Games to be a disaster for equestrian sports. “What a mess,” he lamented. “It was unreal. As we all know, of the six gold medals that were awarded, the only ones that weren’t changed were in dressage.”
And because the eventual gold-medal winners were robbed of the rich experience of being feted at the actual event, “it ended up meaning nothing, really. To have this sort of thing happening at the Olympic Games, with the entire world media as witnesses, just made the sport look stupid.”
While looking back on all his years of covering equestrian sports at the Summer Olympics (and elsewhere) is enjoyable for Smith, he’s also looking forward to the 2008 Games in Hong Kong. (Smith previewed the venues there last fall and said he’s generally optimistic that the elements are in place for a smooth experience for most horses and riders.)
This will be the final Olympic Games for Smith, who is retiring from covering equestrian sports. When the next Summer Olympics rolls around in 2012—ironically, in Smith’s own “backyard” of London—he’ll attend in the unfamiliar role of spectator.
Smith admitted that he will miss the sport, the excitement, meeting new people and the worldwide travel. “My wife used to joke that my being away so much is what saved our marriage!” Smith said with a laugh. “I hope she’s wrong, because after this year she’ll be seeing a lot more of me.”
Smith won’t be idle, though. As the author of numerous (and notable) equestrian books, he said he may still have another book or two in him. Meanwhile, the friends and colleagues he’s made along the way are for life, including Brian Giles, who—as a fellow British sports reporter—covered equestrian events alongside Smith for many years.
“Alan has been so helpful to other people,” said Giles, “all the way through. He’s a very genuine man, and he’s revered around the world in equestrian sports. What he’s done for equestrian sports in England, and around the world, makes him fully deserving of an award from the Queen. He’s not only covered the sport, but he loves horses and he knows a lot about them. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Alan, and I’m very proud to call him a friend.”
Even though yet another Olympic press badge awaits Smith in Hong Kong, he’s already waxing nostalgic.
“This has been a most amazing, exhilarating experience,” Smith declared. “It’s been one hell of a good lifetime, and I can’t imagine anyone having a better job than I’ve had.”