BEIJING — China is tallying its first "no shows" for the Summer Olympic Games, but the reason isn't smog in Beijing or anger over China's policy on Darfur. It's the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and its impact on horses.
The Swiss equestrian team announced that it has withdrawn from equestrian events in Hong Kong during the games, and two bronze-medal-winning Canadian riders told a Toronto newspaper this week that the heat would keep them away also.
Hong Kong — not expecting controversy in the run-up to the games — has reacted with surprise, pique and promises that air conditioning will be running full blast.
Horse racing is hugely popular in the former British colony, a subtropical city about 1,250 miles south of Beijing where all equestrian events of the Summer Games will take place. But even there, horses don't usually compete in August, when daily highs reach an average steamy 88 degrees Fahrenheit and typhoons often lash the city.
A spokesman for the private firm organizing the events, the Equestrian Co., said Friday that he didn't expect the withdrawals to affect the 12-day events, from Aug. 9-21.
"We do have a lot of measures in place to help the horses cool down. We have misting fans and air-conditioned stables," said Christopher Yip, the spokesman.
The company said in a statement that competitions would occur at "cooler times of the day, either early in the morning or in the evening after sunset."
The Hong Kong Jockey Club, a landmark in the city, also issued a statement saying veterinarians would provide "air conditioning from the moment the horses land" and offer stables with "troughs of chilled water and an ample supply of ice at each misting tent."
The Swiss Equestrian Federation announced Tuesday that its team wouldn't compete in Hong Kong after its best rider, Silvia Ikle, ranked No. 4 in the world, said veterinarians told her the city's "weather conditions could be dangerous for the health of horses."
The German trainer of the Swiss team, Juergen Koschel, subsequently resigned in protest, saying that heat in Hong Kong is likely to be similar to what prevailed at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Ashley Nicoll-Holzer, a Canadian rider who won a bronze medal in dressage at the Seoul Games in 1988, told Toronto's Globe & Mail that she's pulling out of Hong Kong because it's "very hot" and the stress from the weather may be "too much for my horse." Her teammate, Cindy Ishoy, also has said she wouldn't compete.
A group that oversees global equestrian competitions played down concerns about Hong Kong's heat and humidity, saying the city's preparations were years in the making.
"Those who are nervous, well, they've been nervous for five years," said Malina Gueorguiev, a spokeswoman for the Lausanne-based Federation Equestre Internationale.
Olympics organizers picked Hong Kong over host city Beijing for equestrian events because of concern about equine diseases on the mainland.
Beijing has faced a smattering of calls for boycotts of the games from activists on issues ranging from greater autonomy for Tibet to intervention to stop bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region. But the calls have drawn little support amid China's huge spending to make the games a spectacular showcase of its rise as a world power.