Rodeo experiences rough ride; Protest may make it tougher for event to re-enter Olympics

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 14B

FARMINGTON, Utah – They’re handing out gold, silver and bronze for roping, riding and wrestling.

Too bad they’re not the real thing. For years, some rodeo aficionados have been trying to get rodeo made into a full Olympic sport. And this year, for the second time, the sport’s gotten quasi-official status, as a demonstration event at the Olympic Arts Festival.

But controversy and logistics have combined to make this probably the last Olympics rodeo for some time.

“Rodeo is not a sport, because half of the participants are unwilling,” said Steve Hindi, president of Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK), an animal rights group that has been dogging the Olympics rodeo. “I think we’re getting our message across.”

The Olympic Command Performance Rodeo, which concluded Monday, is an attempt to show off their sport for visitors.

“Cowboys practice as hard as anybody else,” said Jade Anderson, 17, of Annabella, Utah. “They should be in the real Olympics.”

But SHARK, along with the local Utah Animal Rights Coalition, lobbied Olympic officials for months to sever their ties with the rodeo. They said that many of the events, such as calf roping and steer wrestling, are cruel to the animals and often result in their death or serious injury.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson stated his opposition to some elements of the Olympic rodeo and, for a time, the activists thought they might get their wish. They met with Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, who they say told them he considered calf roping inhumane. The activists offered to cancel their planned Olympic protests if the ties were severed.

But having the event go forward was important to its host city, Farmington (pop. 9,000). Without the rodeo, Farmington would remain best known for a small amusement park and being home to “Utah’s Funnest, Wildest, Biggest, Coolest Corn Maze.”

Local legislator Paul Ray was so incensed at the thought of severing the rodeo’s Olympic ties that he even referred to protesters as “terrorist groups” in a letter to Romney last month.

Last month, Romney said the Olympics would honor a contract signed with rodeo officials, and the event would still have Olympic Arts Festival status. The rodeo – and the protests – were on.

Along with the medals and cash prizes awarded to top finishers, the Olympic rodeo also has an international component. All the competitors are American or Canadian, and strong performances earn points for their nation’s team.

Besides a few flashy touches – a laser light show, techno music and an “all-lady Olympian drill team” that rode around the arena with Christmas lights fastened to its outfits – the rodeo featured the standard events.

About 60 people showed up to protest Sunday, although they called the protest off early because of the cold. Hindi also drove a large van with television screens on the outside, showing examples of what he considers animal cruelty at past rodeos.

Inside, fans said the protests were an annoyance they were trying to ignore.

“These animals cost a lot of money,” said Tom Davison, a Montana resident. “They’re like an investment. People aren’t going to hurt their own investment.”

But despite the temporary victory, rodeo fans and foes expressed doubt that there will be another Olympic rodeo soon. Hindi said he thinks their protests have tainted the sport for years to come. But there’s also a logistic issue: There will be no Olympics in America or Canada until 2010 at the earliest, and staging a rodeo overseas probably won’t be feasible.

While rodeo exists in places such as Australia and Argentina, only the United States and Canada have large, developed rodeo programs.

Romney was a special guest at Sunday night’s performance and received a hero’s welcome. His wife, Ann, is a competitor in dressage, the equestrian event that features a variety of often-indistinguishable trots, canters and walks. She and two others demonstrated the sport, dressed in traditional dressage breeches and riding horses with names like Gucci. It’s more Rodeo Drive than rodeo.

The audience applauded politely. (Romney described it as “as boring as paint drying.”)

Dressage is an Olympic equestrian medal sport, something rodeo can only aspire to. To some observers, the difference between the two was obvious.

“I guess the fancy horses get to be in the Olympics, but the working horses don’t,” said Tom Corrin of Salt Lake City.