Wellington, Fla., Feb. 6, 2006 -- The Athens Olympics officially ended yesterday, 18 months after its closing ceremony, under the palms on the grass grand prix field at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
If you had told me as I took photos of the 2004 show jumping medal proceedings in Greece that I would be doing the same thing again in 2006 in Florida, I would have thought you were crazy.
Crazy is probably the best way to sum up how the medals finally got into the record books. I'll just recap briefly: The U.S. team won silver in Greece, the Germans got the gold. But German rider Ludger Beerbaum's horse tested positive for a prohibited substance, and after many months of legal proceedings, he was disqualified. Without his score, the Germans dropped to bronze, the bronze medal Dutch were elevated to silver and the U.S. found itself on the gold standard.
The formal presentation of the medals took a while to arrange, but since all the team members were competing in Florida, where better to do it than here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club?
Three members of the USA's last Olympic gold medal team, Conrad Homfeld, Joe Fargis and Leslie Howard, slipped the medals over the bowed heads of Chris Kappler, McLain Ward, Peter Wylde and Beezie Madden. Despite the fact that it was Superbowl Sunday, a big crowd turned out to cheer. It was all very nice, though lacking the excitement and drama of the formalities at the Games themselves.
Chris also was draped with the individual silver medal. The original gold medalist, Cian O'Connor of Ireland, had a drug-positive horse, moving Chris up from the bronze and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil from silver to gold. But after following the status of the situation for so long, Chris told me the other day he felt it was "time to stop patting ourselves on the back" and start thinking seriously about the current challenge, this year's World Equestrian Games.
None of the team members rode in for the ceremonies on their Olympic horses, who were all busy elsewhere, with the exception of Royal Kaliber. Chris's horse, as you know, had to be put down after he injured himself in the individual medal jump-off. His bowed tendon led to colic, which led to adhesions, and surgery could not save him.
We all felt Roy's presence, though, particularly at a ringside party given by Kathy and Hal Kamine, who owned Roy with Chris. The Kamines, who are lovely, caring, people, had two portraits of Chris and Roy done by artist Jan Lukens. They were on display at the party, providing the perfect backdrop. One of them will hang at U.S. Equestrian Federation headquarters in Kentucky as a constant memorial to this special stallion.
The whole medal ceremony in Florida was "great and bittersweet at the same time," said USEF President David O'Connor, who was on hand. While he celebrated the achievement of the team and what it means to the U.S., David noted that something is missing when the whole world isn't watching, as they are during the Games. And since he was the 2000 individual Olympic gold medalist in eventing, he should know.
Kathy Kamine struggled with emotion as she gave a speech to her guests, commemorating Roy and thanking everyone who helped with him. It was an apt final farewell to Roy.
"As much as we loved him," Kathy said, "there's a time to appreciate all he did for us and move on. We'll never forget him. You can't mourn; just thank God that we had him and that we enjoyed it and that he went out a true champion, doing what he loved."
Obviously, yesterday afternoon was a time for reflection as well as celebration.
"I always try to look at adverse situations in a positive light," said Peter Wylde.
Peter noted that since Athens, drug rules have been revised and there will now be much stricter standards for footing at championships, so hopefully injuries like Roy's can be prevented in the future.
Peter flew over from Europe, where he is based, for the ceremonies. He was happy to make the trip, noting that accepting the medal was another important chapter in his family history since his grandfather was an Olympic hockey player for Britain.