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2002 Driving Championships: Day Four

In a final competition marked by a controversy in which a French team member is eliminated, France loses the gold to Sweden; the U.S.'s Fred Merriam gets the individual bronze.

Sept. 2, 2002 -- Eleventh hour drama dominated the final day of the World Single Driving Championships in Conty, France.

An always testing cones course had produced the tight competition that its designer, Christian Iseli, had promised, bringing with it significant changes in the leader board order throughout the day. With competitors driving in reverse order of placings, those in the early part of the day repeatedly failed to achieve clear rounds and most collected time, as well as driving, penalties.

The first, and as it turned out, only double clear came from U.S. driver Fred Merriam, who had been in eleventh place overnight. Driving his extremely athletic, homebred Morgan, Gatwood Lightwing, Merriam, from Newfane, Vermont, mastered the intricacies of this technically challenging course to drive clear within the time allowed. His skill and sensitive driving during this phase, and indeed throughout the championships, drew widespread admiration from drivers and spectators of all nationalities.

As successive competitors tackled the cones after Merriam with less success, his ranking steadily improved. At the close, he was in fourth place overall and the winner of this, the third phase of the three-part competition.

Fortunes had dramatically changed at the top of the rankings. In fifth place overnight, Stephane Chouzenoux, driving as an individual for France, achieved a measured clear round that gave him just four time penalties to add to his score. Next to go, French team member, Philippe Gratpanche collected a score of some 9.3 penalties, putting him behind Chouzenoux.

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In third place at this stage, reigning World Champion, Arja Mikkonen from Finland, was the next to go and, surprisingly, collected 11 penalties, putting her behind both Frenchmen. Lying second, French team member Anne-Violaine Brisou, her hands full with a strong horse, knocked one ball down (five penalties) but retained her second position at this stage.

The final competitor, Marie Kahrle from Sweden, entered the arena with rapt attention from the expectant crowd. Driving confidently, she nevertheless had five driving and five time penalties, which dropped her to third place behind Brisou and Chouzenoux.

The results seemed assured; the home nation seemingly had individual gold and silver medals and a team gold. However, as in any sport, it is "not over until it is over." An objection was lodged that Brisou's groom had momentarily handled the reins between cones 13 and 14 on the course--a violation of the rules.

After agonizing deliberation, studying several videos of the round, the judges had no alternative but to disqualify Brisou for this breach. This meant that her scores in all three phases--vital to the French team--were all disallowed. Tragically, France dived from the gold medal position to fourteenth in the rankings. Sweden (Anders Jonsson, Cecilia Qvarnstrom, Marie Kahrle) took the team gold medal, Finland (Arja Mikkonen, Michaela van Assendelft, Heidi Sinda) took silver and Austria (Joseph Leitner, Ewald Schlagbauer, Georg Moser) moved up to bronze.

A clearly subdued Chouzenoux stepped up to the rostrum to receive not the individual silver as he had expected but gold, Kahrle took silver for Sweden, while U.S.'s Merriam was the worthy recipient of the bronze.

Immediately following the awards ceremony, French team officials lodged an appeal to the Jury of Appeal.

The French based their appeal on two counts:

a) the use of unofficial videos to change already stated results. Although not directly referred to in the rules, they pointed out that the judges should make their decision at the time and, if they had not seen a violation, should not then be swayed by the use of unofficial evidence.

b) reference to a rule (Article 914, para 2, subsection 4) that states "A competitor is the only person permitted to handle the rein, whip and brake throughout each competition. Each contravention of this rule, even if to prevent an accident, will entail 20 penalties."

This rule would appear to be in conflict with another which states that any such interference should result in elimination. However, the Jury of Appeal at the Ateliers du Val de Selle have upheld this appeal which will go forward to the FEI.

France's fate was all the more cruel in the light of the superb championships which they had so warmly and generously hosted at the Ateliers du Val de Selle. The competitors and the home crowd yet reacted both sportingly and generously to the medal winners.

Only the second World Single Driving Championships, these were superbly presented with an accommodating organization looking always for ways to help, rather than hinder, in all areas. The drivers, not notoriously reticent if invited to comment on the organization of an event(!), could find faults only with minor details.

In the words of experienced Austrian judge Helmut Koulouch, "Undoubtedly single-horse driving has arrived on the world scene, but there is room for improvement. With an appreciation of its particular needs and the two-year continuity of championships, it has an exciting future."

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