~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, August 1st 2012
When I was a young girl, I dreamed of being in the British Olympic eventing team. Then I grew out of my scruffy pony, discovered boys, and life intervened. But over the last few days the equestrian events in Greenwich Park have given me the opportunity to live that dream vicariously.
When Greenwich Park was first announced as the location, many pooh-poohed it, decrying the waste of money in creating a one-off course from scratch, when we already had Badminton or Burghley to call on. I was among the nay-sayers. But from the moment I walked through the grand columns of the Queen’s House of Greenwich Naval College on cross-country day to the moment the next evening when the riders received their medals, I ate my words.
The city's skyscrapers provided the backdrop for a course that was challenging, imaginative and witty: one of the cross-country jumps was modelled on Toad Hall, another on an East End market barrow, while the Beatles, 10 Downing Street and Stonehenge all made an appearance in the guise of show-jumping fences. Above all, though, it was extraordinary to see horses taking these Olympian fences and jumps in the middle of a city.
As I argued in "What is the best sport?", equestrianism is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete on equal terms. Indeed, all three winning teams— Germany, Britain and New Zealand—were mixed. But it wasn’t just about the riders: as we watched the horses, we saw their courage as they leapt over hedges, through water and down blind banks. My favourite was New Zealand's Lenamore who, at 19, was the oldest horse in the competition, and also, at 15.1hh, the smallest. Yet he flew round the course and when we caught sight of him heading back to his stables after finishing, he was lifting his two grooms almost off their feet as they struggled to keep him under control. If only the winners’ podium had been big enough to accommodate the horses.
Every competitor was warmly applauded—horses, it seems, transcend national boundaries. The British team member, Zara Phillips, received her silver medal from her mother, the Princess Royal, an Olympian herself. She had ridden magnificently, well justifying her inclusion in the team, and if her horse, High Kingdom, hadn’t chosen the start of the show-jumping course to relieve himself (must have been the excitement), knocking him off his stride for a fence two, the British team might have squeaked gold.
That’s my kind of sport—one that can be won or lost on a bowel movement. And perhaps it’s not too late: Mary King, stalwart of the British team, is still going strong at 51, while the Japanese dressage rider, Hiroshi Hoketsu, will be the oldest Olympian at the grand old age of 71.