No one was quite sure if the Brazilians would pull off the equestrian events at the XV Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro (see p. 8 and Aug. 3, p. 8). In the months before the event, cross-country course building fell far behind schedule, health concerns worried competitors, and bureaucracy plagued every aspect of the importation process.
There were many last-minute arrangements and late-night phone calls, but at the end there were no major disasters in Rio: no bandits broke into the stables, the fantastic cross-country course appeared as if by magic, and the host country even earned a couple of medals.
To be sure, this was a distinctly Brazilian experience. There were grooms in flip-flops holding high-strung eventing horses awaiting the jog, and military trucks stuffed with soldiers patrolling the galloping lanes on cross-country day. A mysterious “Colonel” ruled over the venue where the equestrian events were held with an iron fist, denying entry to the 100 pounds of magazines I schlepped to Rio de Janeiro, for example, deeming them “propaganda.”
For my first international competition, it was quite an adventure. I managed to break my computer within the first five days and then get stuck in an elevator with a woman from Argentina a few days later.
I arrived totally unprepared to deal with the “Great Pin Trade,” in which credentialed athletes, officials and their entourage arrive with bucket loads of pins bearing their country’s flag or the logo of their organization in order to trade for other country’s pins. Arriving without pins made it difficult to get a cab, get past a security checkpoint or get another journalist to lend you a computer cord.
The most memorable part of the competition occurred not in the dirt of the arena, however, but in the stands. The patriotic fans that packed into the newly constructed National Equestrian Center created a real sporting event.
The passionate crowd, more used to soccer games than demure equestrian competition, definitely caused problems. Cheering in the middle of an otherwise gorgeous dressage test, for example, sent one skittish Brazilian horse flying through the air. And when fans took to celebrating when non-Brazilians pulled rails in the show jumping phase of the three-day, Technical Delegate Roger Haller had to stop the competition until the announcer could restore order, begging the crowd to show better sportsmanship.
But when a Brazilian show jumper entered the ring to compete, the crowd gave him a hero’s welcome, then fell to a hush until he finished. Then the roar that erupted from the fans after each rider finished drowned out the loudspeaker announcing the score. But it wasn’t just the Brazilians. Smallish but vocal throngs from Guatemala, Bermuda and Chile cheered on their countrymen by name, and we Americans seemed reserved in comparison.
Even those who have spent most of their careers traveling to international competitions admitted that the medal ceremonies were among the best they’d seen (those on the Pan Am Organizing Committee are no fools—they had a dozen or so beautiful young women carry out the medals and bouquets).
The Brazilians weren’t the only ones hard at work to make the Games a reality. Individuals at the Fédération Equestre Internationale and the U.S. Equestrian Federation jumped through more than their fair share of Brazilian hoops while solving problems for the athletes, and riders and their support staffs demonstrated incredible patience as things fell into place.
But at the end of the day, cheers from the crowd were as much for competitors as for the organizers who worked to produce the competition that few thought could happen.