World Equestrian Games: China's 'one in a billion' rider Hua Tian

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Sport
Alex Hua Tian
Hua Tian was born in London to an English mother and Chinese father
Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014
Venue: Caen, France Dates: 25 August-7 September
Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, Red Button, online, tablets, mobiles and the BBC Sport app (times listed below)

Population? More than one billion. Olympic-standard horse riders? One.

Alex Hua Tian is used to life as China's only international eventer.

The British-born rider became the youngest eventer in Olympic history as an 18-year-old at his home Beijing Games in 2008. Nobody from the country has emerged since. There are no dressage riders or showjumpers coming through either.

At next week's World Equestrian Gamesexternal-link in France - the sport's four-yearly festival featuring the world's top riders - Hua Tian will be joined by two Chinese entrants in the comparatively obscure, non-Olympic discipline of endurance riding.

Otherwise, despite coming from the world's most populous nation, he is out on his own - and relishing life without a team around him.

Finding a good horse is not easy
Riders and their horses usually compete at the World Equestrian Games after years of preparation together. However, Alex Hua Tian faced a race to find a horse capable of qualifying for the Games. He was only paired with his current horse, Harbour Pilot C, in March.

"I see it as an advantage," the 24-year-old told BBC Sport. "I don't get the support and the sports funding that perhaps the British riders get, but I get to make my own decisions and my own mistakes, and I enjoy that.

"Being a Chinese rider in the team by default, these opportunities are mine for the taking. I like the simple life. I don't have to worry about team angst, politics, selectors or anything like that."

Hua Tian was born in London to a British mother and a Chinese father. "My mum grew up in a very traditional British household and my father grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China," he says.

A young Hua Tian moved with his family to Beijing, then to Hong Kong, where he was introduced to riding while still a small child.

Alex Hua Tian
Hua Tian missed the last World Equestrian Games in the USA through lack of funding

Places to ride horses are at a premium in Hong Kong, but Hua Tian was allowed to ride at a local golf course - although only if he stuck to the concrete paths. "There was a fine for each hoofprint on the turf, anywhere," he said.

But when Beijing won the right to host the Olympics, the equestrian events were earmarked for Hong Kong, to get around Chinese restrictions on the importing of horses.

The same golf club where Hua Tian had first ridden became part of the Olympic equestrian venue. The same turf he had once meticulously avoided now cushioned his fall when he came off his horse during the cross-country phase, a disappointing end to his Olympic debut.

"For me aged 10 to be worried about stepping on the grass, then eight years later being able to gallop across it at full pelt - and in fact fall off on it - is somewhat ironic," he added.

"The whole experience of Beijing 2008 was utterly overwhelming. Being one of the very few Chinese athletes training abroad in 2008, leading up to the Olympics, there was a huge demand for media interviews.

"My parents did an exceptional job of keeping that away, but nothing could prepare me for the madness that was the Olympics."

China in equestrian sport
Showjumping: Top-ranked rider is Liu Tongyan, 466th in the world. Alex Hua Tian picks out Zhu Meimei, a 22-year-old currently ranked 889th, as a "very talented girl who is Chinese showjumping's next big hope". Eventing: Alex Hua Tian is 268th in the rankings heading into the World Equestrian Games. Only two other Chinese riders make the top 1,000.Dressage: China has no ranked dressage riders in the World Equestrian Federation's database.

Nothing has come close since, either. Hua Tian missed the last World Equestrian Games, in 2010, when funding to travel to the United States for the event could not be found.

Nor did he compete at London 2012, narrowly missing out on qualification. London would effectively have been a second successive home Olympics for a man who is, in many respects, as British as he is Chinese.

Educated at Eton, based in Cheshire and excelling in the British-dominated sport of eventing, Hua Tian admits his identity is an "interesting question".

"I feel very Chinese here in the British countryside," he said, surveying the grounds of his stables, 30 minutes south of Manchester.

"At the same time, when I'm in China, I feel very British.

Alex Hua Tian
Hua Tian is now based in Knutsford in Cheshire

"I feel very, very Chinese and am proud to compete for China. I always have been, especially in a sport where they haven't had a presence at all, historically.

"But the skills - the understanding of horses in competition, and horses and management at home - have come from being here, in the UK, where the sport is at its strongest."

Hua Tian, with no Chinese team-mates to cheer on once he had missed out on London 2012, went along to Greenwich Park to support the British riders instead.

This time around, with Hua Tian back in the saddle, who in China will be cheering him on?

Eventing at the World Equestrian Games
It is held at the prestigious Haras du Pin national stud in Normandy, France, a venue dubbed the "Versailles of horses".Two days of eventing's dressage phase begin on Thursday, 28 August, before the cross-country test on Saturday, 30 August. The action moves to the D'Ornano Stadium, in Caen, for a showjumping finale on Sunday, 31 August.Britain will field a strong team led by William Fox-Pitt, a world silver medallist in 2010 and winner at Kentucky, one of the sport's biggest events, earlier this year. Zara Phillips also features.

"I think our media reach was over 450 million in the past two years," he says casually.

"It's partly down to the phenomenal viewing figures that always come out of China, but also down to a genuine interest not just in eventing, but in the lifestyle of horses."

When Chinese reporters do turn up to poke around Hua Tian's Cheshire yard and gather his thoughts, sometimes they head home with a serious tale of a determined rider.

Sometimes, though, Hua Tian is the "and finally" item on the news bulletins, the novelty Chinese contender in a strange and wonderful sport.

And it seems Hua Tian's home country is a mystery to some in a sport with minimal Chinese involvement.

After his first international victory, at an event in Portugal, Hua Tian slowly became aware of a considerable delay to the medal ceremony.

"There was a 30-minute delay between me winning and the start of the ceremony," he recalled. "That turned out to be because the organisers had to run back and download the Chinese anthem off the internet.

"Nobody had thought to have it with them. And that has happened a couple of times since."

Take note, World Equestrian Games organisers, and download it now. Just in case.

BBC coverage times (all times BST)
Fri 29 August: 12:30-15:55 Red Button
Sat 30 August: 08:55-15:25 Red Button
Sun 31 August: 13:25-16:20 Red Button and 16:00-18:00 BBC Two
Thu 4 September: 14:25-17:15 Red Button
Fri 5 September: 14:35-16:45 BBC Two
Sat 6 September: 12:25-15:55 Red Button
Sun 7 September: 14:00-15:45 Red Button and 15:00-18:00 BBC Two (also the Burghley Horse Trials, alongside World Equestrian Games highlights).