HONG KONG (AFP) — As if show jumpers don't look glamorous enough in their breeches and boots, riders and the officials of the sport are debating whether sex is the key to attracting more fans and money.
Like anything involving horses, show jumping is expensive and must compete with higher profile sports such as golf and tennis for fans and funding.
While Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters earn millions, show jumpers have few similar earning opportunities.
Britain appears to be at the forefront of attempts to add razzamatazz by highlighting riders' sex appeal and some events in the country -- where more than four million people ride regularly -- feature pop music, cheerleaders, confetti cannons and bookmakers.
This month, two show jumpers were pictured in the Daily Telegraph wearing little more than boots and whips.
A senior offical of the sport's controlling body, the International Equestrian Federation (IEF), who did not wish to be identified, described the use of scantily-clad young women to raise show jumping's profile as "vulgar".
Australia's Edwina Alexander, who jumped two clear rounds at the Olympics this week, agreed.
Equestrianism is one of the few sports in which women compete equally with men, so objectifying female competitors was "a bit desperate" and "doesn't make you a better rider," she said.
Show jumping has been a highlight of the Beijing Olympic equestrian events, with the team final in Hong Kong coming down to a dramatic jump-off, for the first time, between the United States and Canada. The Americans won.
The individual final was scheduled for Thursday.
The debate on increasing public interest -- and sponsorship and prize money -- is dividing opinion.
Traditionalists say riders have resisted change in the past, while others insist the prestige and popularity of the sport are at stake and it must modernise to survive.
"If the people who run the sport want it taken to a wider audience and to keep their foothold in the sponsorship market, they do need to broaden their appeal," said Kate Green, a British equestrian journalist covering the Olympics for Horse and Hound magazine.
"The days when show jumpers were household names are gone, and with the best will in the world that cache no longer exists," she said.
"But now you cannot see the riders' faces under their helmets and they become indistinguishable, so there has been a lot of discussion about people wearing jackets with their names on so that followers can identify them."
The British Show Jumping Association's Maria Clayton told the Telegraph raising riders' profiles -- for instance by getting them to wear shirts with their names on -- was a good first step.
"Unless we identify the competitors, how are people going to get to know the riders?" she said.
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, the world's number one show jumper who rides for Germany, said: "Why not?"
"I don't see anything wrong with a little sex and glamour if that's what it takes to bring more interest to the sport," she told AFP.
Corporate involvement is essential in a sport with stratospheric overheads, with just the horses costing upwards of a million dollars each.
Zara Phillips, grandaughter of Queen Elizabeth II and reigning world eventing champion, has raised the profile of equestrian sports with her own brand of royal glamour, appearing in watch and vehicle advertisements to cover the million dollars a year it reportedly costs to keep her seven horses.
Alexander, 34, pointed to the Global Champions Tour, an annual competition spread over eight cities that has corporate sponsorship, a tie-in with a sports broadcaster, and a finals prize purse this year totalling 1.9 million euros.
"I can jump a double clear round and no one else does, but I don't even get a medal," said Alexander, referring to Australia's ninth place in the Olympic team final.
"For such a long time we have not been able to go out there and make some money, or get something back.
"Look at golf and tennis and how far they have come. I don't think we need to have women going half-naked to get more money for the sport, but there does need to be change."
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