The Athens Olympics provided an enormous roller-coaster of emotions for everyoneinvolved. The Olympic Games always produce a tremendous amount of drama as athletes put everything they believe in on the line and deal with the outcome of a competition that they cannot totally control.
That kind of competitive pressure produces stars. And these Olympics were no different in the production of rising stars. But the competition has changed, and riders must adjust or get left behind.
The eventing dressage phase was of the highest level that I have ever seen. Usually there are may be one or two riders and horses that set a standard the no one can stay with. This time there were seven or eight who took us to a higher level of competition and changed it forever.
The tests of Pippa Funnell, Bettina Hoy and Nicolas Touzaint in particular truly set a standard that everyone will have to accept if they want to be a player in this sport in the future. Their tests were relaxed, forward, elastic and at times truly artistic. They were fun to watch. The judges kind of ran away with themselves at the end of the second day, but I don’t see how they couldn’t have started giving out a lot of 9s and 10s. It was very impressive.
Walking the cross-country course was disappointing in a lot of ways, though. We cannot take away from the riders who jumped it clean and well, but that cross-country course was never going to separate the competition–at all.
Basically, the course ran up a valley and straight back down, with one turn at the middle of the course. The first water complex was definitely at four-star level, but the rest of the individual fences could have been on a two-star course. It was far below the level of a championship track.
We must separate the questions of eventing’s format from the questions of the level of competition presented. The format, without steeplechase and roads and tracks, worked fine. The horses handled it well, and I don’t believe the public even knew the difference.
But the level was not up to the standard, and that needs to be addressed.
Sure, there was a desire to have an easier course so we’d have a good competition to watch on television, but the truth of the matter is that the course did not cause fewer falls. So, is a course with smaller dimensions safer at this level? I don’t think so. Riders’ and horses’ lack of respect for the jumps caused some of the falls.
So the Olympic eventing medals came down to the show jumping. Actually, it came down to the last four riders settling the medals for all the countries and individuals who were still in the game. Amazing–four days of competition in three phases, and it comes down to four riders in show jumping.
Yes, it was very exciting for the crowd in the stadium, and I’m sure it made great television. But we already have show jumpers and dressage horses, so I truly believe that the cross-country course has to have more effect on the final outcome of our eventing competition.
Now for the stars. Kim Severson has proven, as we all knew she would, that she’ll be one of the greats of this generation. Now that she has two Olympic medals under her belt, we can stand back and watch her lead this sport in the USA with professionalism, class and a tremendous amount of talent.
Pippa Funnell showed again that not only is she one of the best competitors in the world, but that she’s also one of the best trainers in the world. Leslie Law deserves his gold medal since he’s been a backbone to the British team for the past five years but has never been able to get in front of Pippa and William Fox-Pitt. He’s one of the hardest-working riders in our sport.
I don’t even know what to say about Bettina Hoy. One lapse of concentration and her dream was taken away. She rode absolutely fantastically all week–I think she had the cross-country round of her life and jumped two rounds in the show jumping with just one rail down.
But the rules never allow anyone to cross the starting line after the bell has rung, except to start on course. This is something that
we all learn from the first time we compete. My heart breaks every time I think of it–especially knowing the emotion of that moment–but if we disregard the rules, we jeopardize the integrity of our sport, and we’re on a downhill slide from there.
Bettina deserved to win, but she cannot because a level playing field must be for everyone and not for one competitor, no matter the cost of the penalty. The ground jury made a mistake by allowing the competition to go on. They should have been stopped the competition until they’d made a decision, instead of letting Nicolas Touzaint start right away. But we all make mistakes.
I’m very sorry for Bettina and also for our sport. At a time when we were trying to put our best foot forward, we tripped.
Still, it should never be construed as issue between the countries involved. We did not appeal to the court of Arbitration for Sport because someone had cheated. It was simply a mistake by a rider, by the ground jury and by the jury of appeal.
This will always be an Olympic Games that we’ll remember. We had great performances, but in a sport that is now truly different than what it was.
And seeing the raw emotion of the medal ceremony reminded us all how highly the whole world–not just the athletes–regards the Olympic Games. It is still truly the greatest sporting event in the world. And it’s the only endeavor in which humans take part that the entire world believes in.