Canadian equestrian legend Ian Millar has competed at a world record 10 Olympic Games. Since his debut at Munich ’72, he’s witnessed huge changes in his sport and had to be extremely patient, winning his first medal, aged 61, at Beijing 2008. At Rio 2016, his daughter Amy competed in his place…
“The problem is, the Canadian showjumping team has a very poor pension plan – in fact, they don’t have one at all,” Ian Millar said with a laugh, as he reflected on his record-breaking Olympic career. “So I’ve kept going. I’ve ridden for Canada for 47 years. Some people go and work for a big company in their 20s and retire at 65 – they still haven’t done 47 years.”IOC
Millar, now 72, is a truly remarkable figure. He is the only person to have competed at 10 Olympic Games: Austrian sailor Hubert Raudaschl managed nine, as did Soviet/Latvian shooter Afanasijs Kuzmins, but no modern athlete comes close. He could have gone to more, too: Millar missed out on both Moscow 1980, due to the international boycott, and Rio 2016, because his horse needed surgery.
Still training horses, coaching riders, competing at the highest level and assisting the Canadian federation with developing its methods, he puts his longevity down to an intriguing formula. “Twenty-five per cent eat well enough, 25% keep moving, 25% manage your stress, 25% laugh and love,” he said.
“That, and the fact I’m single-minded about the horses and the sport, have kept me going. There would be those who might look at my life and say, ‘Boy, it’s a pretty narrow existence, he doesn’t seem to do much except the horses.’ But it works for me. I learn something new almost every day about horses, and often when I teach I learn more than the person I’m teaching.”
Millar’s first Olympic memories came as a 21-year-old equestrian fanatic. “I first rode at the age of 10, in Alberta – eventing and the pony club were the real thing for me. I loved horses and I loved competition.
“I was at a horse show in Ottawa when the Mexico 1968 Olympics were going on. It was the first time Canada had sent a showjumping team to the Olympics, and that was the very last event of the Games. We didn’t watch on TV – it was just announced over the PA that we’d won the (team) showjumping gold medal. Everyone was so proud.”
Four years later, Millar himself was on the squad for Munich 1972. He says he felt “proud and blessed” to be called up for the Games – but the experience of showjumping at that time was beyond anything he had ever encountered.
“Up until 1984 in LA, the showjumping courses were pretty much impossible. The course in Munich was darn-near unjumpable, as was the one in Montreal in 1976. These courses could finish off your horse, end its career. It was a heartbreaking experience. If they hit a rail, they’d fall. The courses were ridiculous. You don’t ask a 100-metre runner to suddenly run 120 metres.”
In 1984, however, more sympathetic courses – with breakaway rails – meant that equestrian fell in line with the kind of jumps that riders were used to at Grand Prix events. Millar started to relish the competition. “It is a different level of pressure. You see accomplished riders who suddenly can’t ride as well as usual. You learn to handle it.”
As he got into his forties, riding at Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992, did he feel like each Games might be his last? “It never occurred to me that it was going to end,” Millar said, with another hearty laugh. “I just figured it would go on forever. So much is said about young people having goals but I was very short-term. I tried to do the best things for me and my horses. I focused on riding better and learning. Because I did that, going to the Olympics just took care of itself. You did one, then prepared for next quadrennial.”
He had to wait until Beijing 2008, aged 61, and 36 years after his Olympic debut, to finally make the podium. “It had been frustrating because, in 1980, when we had an alternate event in Rotterdam due to the boycott of the Moscow 1980 Games, we won the gold there.
“But going into 2008 was a very big deal because my wife had passed away that spring. My children Jonathon and Amy came to Hong Kong, and I felt like I had an angel riding with me that night. That’s what my kids felt, too.
“I was the anchor rider, on my horse In Style, and it all came down to me – it was an incredible thing. After it was all over, we all stood together and we all knew what the other was thinking. We were all missing Lynn, and believing very much that somehow she had a hand in what happened. That had significance beyond sport.”
Beyond that emotional moment, Millar pinpoints Sydney as the best Games he’s been to – “the Australians did a heck of a job and the people are lovely” – and the level of publicity the Games get as the biggest change that has occurred in his time.
“The amount of attention the Games gets has increased, especially with social media. You can livestream every darn thing, anywhere in the world. But ultimately, it is still just top sport. There’s just an added element of showbusiness to go with it.”
2008 Getty Images
Missing out on Rio 2016 had a major silver lining for Millar. “I was fine with it because guess who was on the team: my daughter, Amy. How much better could that be? Yes I missed out on going to No.11 but what a wonderful thing for my daughter to go for the first time. I’d have had trouble taking that spot from her.”
Millar senior is Amy’s coach. “It’s a very interesting thing to do,” he said. “I can’t be her father when we are training, or I won’t do it right. As a father I might want to be more cautious when it comes to challenging a horse but, as a coach, you’re darn right I’ll have to do it. And if she played the ‘daughter’ card, it would all would be for naught, too. She has to be an athlete that I’m training.”
Amy is a possible candidate to ride in Tokyo – but Millar has recently declared that he will be hanging up his saddle. “It’s still fun, but not quite as much fun,” he said. “I just felt like the time had come. So many people have helped me for so long, it’s time for me to help people.
“I’m not really walking away from it. I’ve got students in the sport, not to mention my son and daughter. I’ve got horses to train and horses to ride to develop in some of the lower divisions. I still have a lot to do and I hope to contribute.”