What a long, long day Tuesday–the Nations Cup–was. The first round started at 9 a.m. and ran until just before 1 p.m. Then they scheduled a break until 8:30 for the second round, which was great for the horses but hard on everyone else involved. (You’ve never seen so many sober but glassy eyed people in one place.)
And since the United States and Sweden went to a jump-off, it was a few minutes after midnight before they started the awards ceremony and 3:30 a.m. before my head hit the pillow.
(I slept til 10:30, and then went to cover the freestyle, which is why I didn’t finish writing this until today.)
Besides the fact that the U.S. quartet won the silver medal, a bright spot to what we all call marathon day was that it gave me a chance to do a sort of catching up as I filled in the time between rounds.
A highlight was getting a chance to take the stable tour, when they let us media types enter the compound where the horses and their grooms live, which is fenced off like a concentration camp, much more thoroughly and dauntingly than I’ve ever seen before. I mean, only riders, grooms, trainers, owners and officials are allowed in the stables at any FEI-sanctioned competition, but the fencing is usually temporary and often a bit flimsy. Not this time. They’re serious here.
If you look at the photos I’ve included today, you’ll see that the stables are brand-spanking new and extremely well-designed. In fact, the riders have raved about how cool and efficient the stables have been in the scorching heat, even though the only trees or shrubs were clearly planted the week before the Olympics began. In 10 or 20 years they’ll provide shade from the scorching heat, but not now. Another reason why it’s reminiscent of a brightly colored Auschwitz from the outside.
The barns are certainly exceptionally workmanlike, but one of my colleagues perfectly described them as “antiseptic.” They have no character or features. They are, quite literally, stable blocks. The equestrian center section has 288 stalls, while the section up the hill with the racetrack has another 1,200. Maybe Markopoulo could be the next winter horse show circuit? And maybe this place, which also has a gigantic and state-of-the-art veterinary clinic, will stand empty until it crumbles away like the other ancient buildings here.
Anyway, once the tour was over, I wandered past the dressage practice arenas with Margaret Freeman, a friend who some of you may know as a dressage judge and dressage rider but who is also an experienced journalist and covering the Olympics once again for the Associated Press. And there, working Rusty, was Ulla Salzgeber, with Heike Kemmer offering advice. So, of course, we had to sit down and watch.
Ulla was clearly trying to deal with the spooking at the letters that had cost Rusty so many points the day before in the Special, and once again the wind had blown them over. Margaret and I agreed that we would have been attempting to soothe and reassure Rusty about the letters, which in his mind had suddenly become monsters. But Ulla’s method was clearly more Germanic, I guess you’d say. “Ja, you vill listen to me–now,” she’d say with her aids every time he blinked at a letter, which for a while was pretty much every time he passed one. But he did start paying more attention to her than to the letters, and he never spooked yesterday in the freestyle. So I guess now we know why she’s won medals and we haven’t.
When I returned to the media center at Markopoulo, I ran into Robert Ridland, who’s been doing the color commentary on the NBC/Bravo broadcast of the equestrian events. Robert sighed, took a deep breath, and said how hard but rewarding it had been to broadcast more of the equestrian events than has ever been shown in the United States.
“On cross-country day, I really learned what they mean in TV by the phrase ‘up against the wall,'” he said. They had a four-hour broadcast with no breaks whatsoever, and they had to ad lib it all because they were using a broadcast feed going out to the world. And they had no director communicating with him or play-by-play announcer Tim Ryan through an earpiece, telling him what or who the next shot would be.
“And half the time we couldn’t even tell for a few seconds who it was,” he said. “You know, they’d go to a chopper shot, or they’d start with a close-up of their teeth, or they’d do a replay and you’d have no idea of what it was going to be.”
Robert rode in the 1976 Olympics, and, as many of you know, he’s also a show manager in Southern California, including the two FEI World Cup Finals that have been held in Las Vegas. So we got to talking about the Markopoulo Equestrian Center. We agreed that it was a beautiful and beautifully built facility, but that it would almost inevitably be a white elephant.
The games are winding down now, and that may be why security seems to be getting tighter. They’ve definitely turned up the metal detectors, and they’re now searching bags.
On Monday, the day of the Special, Charlie Mann and I both noticed that there were suddenly more blue-uniformed special policeman, who looked rather more alert, almost jumpy. And for the first time we saw, on the dressage stadium floor with us photographers, a guy who looked like ex-KGB but wearing a volunteer’s outfit, with a walkie-talkie cell phone glued to the side of his head. He would walk slowly around the stadium, staring into the stands, occasionally saying something into the phone.
On the bus ride home, Nancy Jaffer told us she’d heard that British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife had been among the spectators. I thought that was an awfully elitist thing for a Labour Prime Minister’s wife to be doing. But that’s a political discussion for another day.