Traveling to the Tokyo Olympics isn't easy for athletes — just ask the horses

·3-min read

Traveling to the Olympics is going to be more complicated than ever this year. For American athletes (and media) heading to Tokyo for the games, it means multiple COVID tests with doctor-certified results, installation of a dedicated Olympic-health app, a flight halfway around the world, piles of paperwork on the plane and a lengthy intake process with more paperwork and more testing.

And that’s just for the humans.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation is sending teams to compete in jumping, dressage, eventing and the Paralympics, and the inclusion of equine athletes adds several more layers, and a whole other continent, to the process.

The horses don’t have to get COVID-tested. “But they get tested for a lot of other things. I mean the health certificates are 30 pages long,” said USEF Director of Sport Will Connell. “And obviously they can’t use apps.”

So how do they get there? Here’s the short version, according to Connell: “What you do is you take the horse, and you put two horses in a box, and you put the box on the plane.”

But the headache, for Connell, is in the details.

SEVILLE, SPAIN - JULY 07: Francisco Gavino of Spain trains ahead of Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 07, 2021 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)
SEVILLE, SPAIN - JULY 07: Francisco Gavino of Spain trains ahead of Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 07, 2021 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Every horse that competes in Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) events has a microchip and a passport with a diagram of their visible markings. For the vast majority of the horses going to Tokyo, this is not their first international flight — but it is their longest.

Because the pandemic has limited the number of freight routes from North America to Japan, the horses won’t be flying direct to or from the Games. Instead, they’ll take a weeklong layover in Europe.

In total, 22 American horses will take $12,500 flights from New York or Miami to Europe in business class (which just means two horses instead of three per stall) jet stalls aboard specialized freight airplanes. On board will be veterinarians, personal grooms to care for each of the horses, thousands of kilograms of gear and enough food to feed all of the horses for a month.

“Each horse has its own diet and hundreds of different feeds have had to be approved across all the different teams,” Connell said.

In Europe, they’ll be met by their riders and continue to train through at least seven days of “pre-export quarantine” — the dressage team is training in Germany right now. Six of the horses are there as reserves, they’ll go to the Games only if there’s an injury in Europe. Otherwise, they’ll fly home while the other 16 take a nearly $15,000 flight from Liège, Belgium, to Tokyo, with a technical stop scheduled in Dubai to refuel.

In all, the horses that end up competing in Tokyo will spend a month abroad with a total of roughly $55,000 (furnished by the USOC and USEF) per horse on roundtrip airfare.

“I mean the Olympics as a whole is not a cheap venture,” Connell said.

“It’s a big, big logistical challenge, but at the end of the day all sports are the same, aren’t they? At the end of the day, we're all about trying to get athletes to perform to their absolute best on a given day in history. Our athletes just happen to have six legs and a tail between them.”

This image released on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, shows horses bound for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games being loaded on to an Emirates SkyCargo Boeing 777-F at London Stansted Airport. On the flight were 34 horses from 10 of the nations competing in Equestrian at Rio 2016. For further information visit: http://apassignments.com/newsaktuell. (FEI/Jon Stroud Media via AP Images)
This image released on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, shows horses bound for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games being loaded on to an Emirates SkyCargo Boeing 777-F at London Stansted Airport. On the flight were 34 horses from 10 of the nations competing in Equestrian at Rio 2016. For further information visit: http://apassignments.com/newsaktuell. (FEI/Jon Stroud Media via AP Images)

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