Friday, Dec. 1, 2023

What I Think Was Right–And Wrong–About Athens

The Olympic organizing committees apparently now have a good recipe for Olympic equestrian venues--build it like they did in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000), in a series of levels or tiers.

Like its two predecessors, in Athens the stable area was at the lowest point or level. And, by the way, these barns were permanently and beautifully built, spacious and airy.



The Olympic organizing committees apparently now have a good recipe for Olympic equestrian venues–build it like they did in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000), in a series of levels or tiers.

Like its two predecessors, in Athens the stable area was at the lowest point or level. And, by the way, these barns were permanently and beautifully built, spacious and airy.

The next level, sort of up a block, was the warm-up arenas. Athens had quite a few sand arenas and several good grass arenas. And the entrance to the cross-country course came directly out of the warm-up area.

But the top tier in Athens was quite different than Sydney or Atlanta: Two huge stadiums, one for dressage, with all-weather footing, and one for show jumping, with grass footing, along with two final warm-up rings.

Much of the jumping community was in Athens for the final show jumping day of the eventing. And we were mystified by the debacle that took place regarding the scoring of Bettina Hoy. It will always be a mystery to me.

How riders at this level and judges at this level could let a basic and flagrant violation of the rules unravel to this point is truly astounding. Luckily, after decisions were overturned right and left, the correct conclusion was drawn. And, unfortunately for the equestrians, this was after much wrangling by the lawyers.

I always enjoy the Olympics from a spectator’s point of view. There is time to see everything, so I’ve watched the eventing and the dressage almost without exception since I first went to the Pan Am Games in Chicago in 1959.

Dressage judging is apparently more mysterious and perplexing even than the hunters and the equitation. The dressage community better get their house in order or they’re going to kill the sport. Who would want to go to the time, trouble, heartache and expense to put up with the shenanigans I saw at these great Olympics?

Of course, the United States is not part of the European clique in dressage or show jumping. And we’re certainly not a big part of the “old boys” club of the Federation Equestre Internationale. But transparency has to be part of the game.

But, back to show jumping. Olaf Petersen was the course builder and Leopoldo Palacios was the technical delegate. They’re both masters of the sport.

Olaf’s warm-up course (which doesn’t count in the scoring) gave each rider 90 seconds to do his or her thing, and it proved typically bland and low. Olaf did present a rather spooky cut-out wall and a stack of rails over open water. People could jump the wall several times if their horses didn’t like it, and several did.


My strongest impression leaving the warm-up round was the excellent standard across the board of teams, horses, and riders. My, how the average rider has improved! Most ride smoothly with their horses, in a beautiful position.

My first impression of the course for the first individual qualifying round was the colors of the fences–they very much reflected Mediterranean colors. Pastels, blues, beiges, oranges and lime greens. And they blended in so well to the background.

Yes, Olaf’s course was technical and tricky enough, but it was the colors that added to the illusion, and his striding options that increased the difficulty. The very interesting and colorful wings on the sides of the fences were also distracting.

Olaf also presented a royal blue wall off the in-gate, nine strides to a pair of rust-colored oxers about 341³2 feet apart. This apparently was an optical problem, which appeared to be worse early in the day.

Again, the standard across the board was excellent. There were many powerful teams and individuals in Athens, and ours looked among the best.

The Nations Cup course on Tuesday was nothing short of magnificent. Again the colors of the fences and the construction of the wings were most unusual and impressive. Virtually every fence came down at one time or another.

Olaf’s technical, bending-line incorporation of the open water was particularly memorable. Also challenging was the half-stride option of five or six strides from fence 3 to the double combination at fences 4A and B, and the oxer-vertical-oxer triple combination (fences 11ABC) before the five strides to the delicate plank.

One fence in particular caused concern from a judging point of view. The delicate plank at fence 12 kept blowing down in this relentless wind. Several horses were right on top of it when it blew down, causing one horse to jump a 3’6″ fence and the other one to jump a two-foot fence. Neither, of course, was penalized.

Again, as in Sydney four years ago, the footing proved to be a big problem. This relatively new turf had no root system, cupped out, and gave way as horses took off and landed. Three horses, including Chris Kappler’s Royal Kaliber, broke down in the ring and had to be taken away in the horse ambulance.

I don’t understand why footing is such a difficult thing to create, especially with all these footing specialists running around. It’s a responsibility officials from the FEI need to shoulder better.

For whatever reason, the footing appeared less of a problem in the second round, run under lights. They moved every fence over a couple of feet so the horses wouldn’t be taking off and landing in the same places again, and they replaced the plank on top of fence 12 with a rail, even though the wind had disappeared.


The German team’s triumph showed that, in every discipline, they are an example of ambition, unity, horsemanship and work ethic. They are true professionals in every sense of the word, and they’re even nice. Of course, they have Ludger Beerbaum, whom I consider the greatest rider of the century, as their captain. He has such class and stature that he helps everyone else, not just his teammates.

Beezie Madden’s double-clear rounds and Chris Kappler’s clear and 4 faults helped secure the silver medal after an absolutely stupid jump-off against the Swedes. While the Germans were winning the competition, we were giving it away. We made too many mistakes, especially at the water, to have deserved gold.

Historically, some of the best riders have had “wateritis.” We have to jump water more and learn how to school horses to jump it clean.

Yes, I’m very proud of our wonderful silver medal. But I keep thinking, “Close but no cigar!” There is more work to be done if we are ever to approach the pinnacle we were at in the 1980s.

The individual final is run over two different courses, which are, of course, bigger than the Nations Cup. Some 45 riders qualified to start, all beginning anew with 0 faults.

Olaf’s first round didn’t appear as difficult as it proved to be. Again, almost every fence took its toll, especially both combinations. There were only two completely clear rounds.

Course B walked extremely difficult. The triple bar with five short strides to the vertical-vertical-oxer combination was the meat of the course, although, again, almost every fence came down at least once. And only two riders jumped clear.

When the dust settled, Cian O’Connor, a young but experienced Irish rider, won the gold with 4 faults. Rodrigo Pessoa and Chris Kappler had tied for silver with 8 faults and had to jump off, where Royal Kaliber went three-legged lame.

This is the second Olympic Games in a row where I’ve lost great horses to treacherous footing. First it was Rhythmical in Sydney and now Royal Kaliber in Athens, both owned by the Kamine family. As we all know, it’s hard enough to find such horses, let alone manage, school, and show them successfully.

First, I feel for the pain and discomfort the horses go through. Second, I feel for the heartache endured by all those involved with these wonderful horses.

I left these Olympic Games with an extremely bittersweet taste in my mouth. In fact, I am most discouraged with the powers that be. After all, it is the FEI’s job to maintain the sport at this level. And these Olympic Games were certainly jinxed.




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