Jan Tops is a giant of the equestrian world. After a brilliant career competing at the highest level and winning Olympic gold in Barcelona (1992), he set up in 2006 the Longines Global Champions Tour and League, which have become preeminent showjumping competitions.
The Dialogue sits down with inspirational people from across the globe with links to the Middle East and North Africa. Guy Shone explores what drives these extraordinary individuals.
Equestrian sport is one that plays by its own rules. While the rider is important, so too is their steed. “You need the [sic] great athlete of a horse…become a real partner with your horse. It takes a while…to be really competitive on that level,” Jan Tops, founder and president of Global Champions, tells The Dialogue.
The Global Champions Tour (GCT) is considered the top of its class. An individual show jumping series with 15 rounds of competitions hosted around the world, it pits men against women, and older riders against younger ones.
“It’s rare in sports that women and men are competing on the same level,” Jan says. “And at the moment, you see a lot of women being very successful in our sport.” That wasn’t the case a few decades ago, but Jan explains that changes to how horses are bred have made all the difference.
“Now the horse has gotten more lighter, before, it was more physical to ride horses. Being a man was an advantage,” he points out. “It’s more now about feeling. It’s more about bringing partnerships together.”
Jan is a man who knows horses inside out. He competed for 25 years as a rider, clinching Gold for the Netherlands at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. He’s also one of Europe’s leading horse dealers. So, it was only logical that he would find a way to take show jumping to new heights, founding the GCT in 2006.
“I wanted to bring our sport to a different level,” he says, adding, “I looked to many other sports to see how far we could reach…and give a better future for the sport…not only for the riders but also for the sponsors and owners.”
The opening round of the 2023 Tour was at Al Shaqab in Doha, Qatar. A place Jan describes as being ‘one of the most special venues in the world’.
“It’s a state-of-the-art place. Not only beautifully designed, it is also horse friendly,” he enthuses. “Everything is looked at for the horse, from the stabling to how you get from one place to another. It’s a perfect, perfect setting.”
Jan says since the GCT started coming to Doha in 2008, he has seen huge development in Qatar. “We can already see that with the [FIFA] World Cup and what an amazing result they had,” he raves. “They keep developing, and especially in this region, they love horses. You see how much passion there is, so much interest.”
Jan’s links with Doha run deep. He’s long worked as a coach there, with an eye to developing new talent. He believes it’s only time before Qatari riders reach the top.
“We have some really good riders…and I think we did a great job already in Rio (Summer Olympics 2016),” Jan asserts. “We were very close, and I’m sure in the next Olympics to come, Qatar could definitely be having great results…and on the right day, have a medal.”
It’s a slow and steady journey to achieve that sort of success, though. Jan says it’s about persistence and the bond between the rider and horse.
“You have to be consistent every day with that animal, and they need to trust you,” he explains. “Every horse is different. You have to have the feeling of what every horse needs, and I think all these details, make you become a champion or not.”
There is no getting away from the fact that equestrian sport is often seen as the playground of the rich and famous. It’s an expensive ride, but Jan says there are plenty of avenues for those who aren’t born into money to get a leg up.
“If you are disciplined, talented, you get picked by owners,” he says. “You get picked by important stables, and you build your way up from there. If you see the top 30 riders in the world, they come from modest families.”
Jan believes these kind of opportunities will help continue to build the sport. For him, there is still so much potential, with Jan hoping that one day, CGT will be able to emulate the success of other sports, such as Formula 1.