Let's Walk The Olympic Cross-Country Course

Aug 15, 2004 - 10:00 PM

on location with John Strassburger


          As long as you stay on the track of the Olympic cross-country course at Markopoulo, it’s soft as a carpet. That’s because the organizing committee must have spent millions on sod, fertilizer and irrigation to make it even greener and thicker than a golf course. So thick and soft that Britain’s Jeanette Brakewell and Leslie Law, and trainer Yogi Breisner, were walking it barefoot on Sunday.

          But stray 1 foot from the track, and you’re in sand, rocks and scrub. Still, some riders are wondering whether the root system is deep enough to withstand the pressure of 75 horses. Said Phillip Dutton, “They’ve certainly done everything they possibly could. We’ll just have to see.”

          Three of the course’s fences are photographed to the right. To see the entire course, go to photographer Charles Mann’s website at cmannphotos.com/Olympics.htm and click on “Aug. 14.”

Basically the first half of the course is a slow, steady climb to the highest part of Markopoulo, above the racetrack.

          Both Dutton and 1996 gold medalist Blyth Tait have said this course isn’t nearly as big or technical as other recent Olympic courses, but they have allowed that the heat, terrain and new format (no roads and tracks) will likely have an effect.

Bettina Hoy, the leader of the first day’s dressage, summed up the course rather succinctly: “Some think it is too easy, but I don’t think it is too easy.”

          Amy Tryon likes the way it starts: “The first few fences will allow you to settle and find your rhythm. It’s straightforward and galloping to start.”

          Italian course designer Albino Garbari has, naturally, used Greek themes for all the jumps, and the first two fences are extremely inviting, starting with a colorful flower oxer (fence 1) and an equally bright fruit stand (fence 2), featuring ripe watermelons, oranges, apples, lemons and more.

          Fence 3, a sunflower-themed oxer, is the first one that says, “Welcome to a four-star.” It’s gigantic, maximum-sized, but it’s off a left turn and uphill, setting the horses up perfectly for it.

          Fence 4, called “Garden Stories,” is a choice of two oxers, set between three trees, decorated with fake red and pink roses. The right one is about 6 inches wider, but that line is 2 or 3 seconds faster.

          The horses will continue galloping uphill to fences 5 and 6, called “Memory Paths,” the course’s first combination. Again, there are two choices, with the fastest way being to jump the right-hand gnarled tree and take a bending line of three to four strides to a bounce bank, to another gnarled log with half the face of the first log.

          Another uphill gallop and a left turn toward the racetrack brings fence 7, “Natural Remedies,” a log oxer adorned by the herbs basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme.  If there’s a “breather fence” here, this is it.

          Fence 8, “Harvest Time,” is a maximum-sized table underneath a grape arbor. 

So far, the fences have been straightforward but huge, on an unrelentingly steady climb. But following fence 8 is about 100 meters of downhill galloping. Only problem is the first water, the course’s first major technical question, is next. In fact, Dutton noted that the fact the horses haven’t seen anything too technically demanding before this could make it even harder.

          The fences are numbered 9 and 10 (photo on right), and the complex starts with an ascending pile of logs on top of a rise, then a steep drop of three strides to another narrow log into the water, then two really forward strides to leap the narrow bow of a fishing boat, and two more strides to leap the bow of a second boat. The trick here is that the horses won’t see the question–or the line–until they’ve jumped the first pile of logs. Then they’ll have precious little time to figure it out, and if they try to slow down to do it, they won’t make the striding.

          There is a really long way here, completed by jumping a bridge in the water, but it will take 20 to 30 seconds longer than the straight way.

          Garbari gives the horses a beak next with fence 11, a huge trakehner, but fence 12, “Traditional House,” is another four-star question. Horses have to jump the corner of the red-tiled house, on which the red flag has been brought in about a foot from the corner.

          The long way here, over the corner of a barn on the other side of the farmyard, will add a good 10 to 15 seconds to the time of anyone who chooses the much safer route.

          A 400-meter rollercoaster gallop brings fence 13, a brush-topped oxer on a rise, 90 meters in front of fence 14, the “Earth Waves,” honoring terrace farming. The straight way is a test of power and accuracy–a bounce bank and then a forward one stride to a round stone “pimple” that’s about 3’7″ high and topped with flowers.  The long way, again, is about intermediate difficulty but will take a good 10 seconds longer.

          Now, horses face the steepest part of the track as they head toward the turnaround point, an inviting beehive and four or five strides to a stone-and-wood oxer.

          Riders could be forgiven for taking a deep breath here and thinking, “OK, we’re halfway home, and it’s all downhill from here.” But the consensus is, if they do, they’ll be at least really late reaching the finish line and at worst could get into trouble really fast.

          So they’ll have to keep their minds sharp on the 200-meter downhill gallop to fence 17, the “Horse Stable,” which looks like a run-in shed built into the side of a hill.

          Fence 18 is the symbol of Athens, “The Winner’s Prize” or “Kotinos,” shaped like the traditional wreath of olive leaves placed on the winners’ heads (photo on right). But it’s a narrow fence in the middle of a wide, long gallop and will likely catch anyone getting mentally tired. And there’s no option. 

          Another 400 meters takes horses to fence 19, called “Life Obstacles,” an imposing but straightforward ditch and wall.

          Fence 20, “Leisure Time,” comes up after a left bend. It’s a bench, but the key is it has to be jumped on the right side to get a good line to the second water jump (fences 21 and 22), two logs separated by a 12-foot bounce. It’s big, and the horses could be a bit anxious about water since it’s right next to the first demanding water jump.

          Fence 23 is called the “Time Fence” since it’s a narrow, upright olive tree, which can live to be 300 to 600 years old. The sawed-off trunk is probably close to 3’11”, with a semi-circular ditch in front of it. The long option is a simple kennel after a wide circle around the tree.

          Fences 24ABC are Garbari’s next effort to slow horses down. The “Shepherd’s Shed” is a triple combination with one stride between each element and the B element a well-shaped “pimple.” There’s a long way here too.

          Fence 25, “View,” is a one-foot lip of flowers with a 5’11” drop behind it. But following is the course’s next true four-star test, at 26ABC, a gigantic coffin combination (see photo at right). Again, horses go up a mound to jump a 3’6″ log, then down a 45-degree bank for two or three strides, over a narrow ditch, then back up the other side to clear a 3’3″ log. It’s a test of bravery but also of endurance as the horses will have to balance on their hind ends down to the ditch, then push hard to get out. If they weren’t tired yet, they could be now.

          The long way looks very similar, but is slightly smaller and the second log is on a flattened area.

          A right bend and slight uphill brings fences 29 and 30, jumping over houses connected to two windmills. Endurance is again tested by the fact they’re both sitting atop mounds.

          Downhill and left is fence 29, called “Water” because it’s a water trough with flowing water. And it’s absolutely maximum sized. Again, there’s a smaller, time-consuming option to try to get everybody home.

          Fence 30 is another ramp on a mound, this one with a beautiful rendition of the Olympic rings on the landing side. Again, though, it’s no time to relax, because 50 meters down the hill is the final combination at fence 31, the “Pottery Masterpiece.” The fast route starts with a broken bridge to drop into the complex, then one stride straight ahead to a bank, and one stride to a narrow urn. It’s a relatively uncomplicated test of accuracy, but it’s late and a little hiccup could cause anyone to miss the urn. Once again, the long way involves circumnavigating the complex to jump three fences.

          A short gallop and right turn brings an inviting V-shaped ditch and rail. Find your lane and be brave over the ditch, then turn right for home and the last two fences.

It’s an uphill gallop to the finish now–good for balance but hard on time. Fence 33 is a whitewashed house off a right bend to help with the balance, and fence 34 is the traditional ode to the next Olympics, in Beijing. Horse go through an arch to clear a red-painted oxer backed with bamboo chutes. And it’s the final test of endurance, because the hill is a bit steep here and it’s a maximum-height fence, made even bigger by the bamboo.

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