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Bob the Builder embraces Olympic show-jumping challenge

A door resembling the entrance to the home of the British prime minister stands as part of a decoration on the course for the equestrian eventing show jumping phase at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London.

David Goldman/AP

Any minute now, Bob (the Builder) Ellis will be unwrapping the plastic from a series of show-jumping obstacles that will define the London Olympics.

Over the past couple of decades, the jumps that horses must clear at the Olympics are not just a series of standards and multi-coloured poles, with a couple of fancy bushes by the side.

They are works of art that reflect the culture of the country, and until the show-jumping event unfolds, they are top secret.

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"I couldn't really," Ellis said, laughing when asked if he'd spill a few of his mysteries recently. Leopoldo Palacios, the technical delegate for the London Games, says he hasn't even seen them.

Ellis, who has also designed courses at Spruce Meadows near Calgary almost a dozen times, says he has been working on the obstacles every day over the past two years. It's become a complicated job since the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm when themed fences began to appear at major events.

Palacios, a Venezuelan who is a regular designer at Spruce Meadows, says he spent three years on his design for the 2008 Olympic course in Hong Kong, learning the culture and history of China. He'd suggest motifs for each fence, and the IOC had to approve.

"You don't show things that don't reflect peace," said Palacios, who creates about 700 courses a year around the world. "The Olympic Games is meant to show the peace of the world and the beauty of the country."

Palacios also designed the Sydney Olympic course in 2000. He will design the course for the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary next month for the 16th time.

In China, spectators saw jumps with names: the Great Wall, the dragon fence, the summer palace in Beijing.

"You need a lot of imagination and preparation to do this," Palacios said.

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Ellis is remaining mum about what he plans for the coming week, but Ian Allison, vice-president of Spruce Meadows, says he wouldn't be surprised to see the Tower of London or a shiny red telephone booth as hurdles that horses must clear.

Still, horses must meet technical challenges that will produce an appropriate Olympic champion. Ellis has all sorts of tricks in his "toolbox." He won't call them tricks, because his utmost purpose is never to put a horse in harm's way. Rather, he'll present challenges that ask the horse to jump wide and then high, with slightly unusual distances between jumps, jumps that appear at the out-gate, when horses might think they're finished; jumps of different colours that present optical illusions for horses.

Above all, Ellis will avoid the type of obstacles used at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, with a round that featured six of the biggest jumps ever built for an Olympic competition. Some riders called it "terrifying."

Only two horses negotiated that round cleanly. A Canadian team that included Jim Elder, Jim Day and Tom Gayford won the gold medal with 102.75 faults, while it's much more common for the winning team to have about 20 faults. (Every time a horse lowers the height of a fence, they incur four faults. The fewer faults, the better.)

"I never saw fences that big," said Palacios, speaking of Mexico. "And I never built fences that big."

One of them required the horses to clear a huge oxer (a jump with two standards, requiring the horses to jump width as well as height) with a front rail that stood five feet, nine inches high and a back rail that was six feet high at the back – with a spread of seven feet, three inches.

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Horses also had to clear a giant wall that was five feet, nine inches high – after coming off a turn.

In London, Ellis promises that his highest fence will be 1.60 metres high and 2.20 metres wide.

The rails will also be lighter in London than they are in Spruce Meadows, which owns a lot of the heavy poles from the 1976 Olympics, also a formidable course. Many of these poles are five metres long, which adds to their weight. The rails at London will be 3.65 metres long.

Ellis will probably release only a handful of his designer jumps during the show-jumping qualifying rounds on Saturday and Sunday, but they'll be out in full force during the Nations Cup (team) event on Monday and the individual final on Wednesday.

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