July 30, 2012--The crowds attending the Olympic eventing cross-country today were both inspiring and frightening. More than 50,000 streamed into Greenwich Park, with a good portion of them spread out in the field next to cunning obstacle number 8, the tri-part "River Bank," modeled on "The Wind in the Willows." They watched live action as the riders went through the water, and also kept their eyes on the enormous screen on the other side of the jump, where cameras followed competitors around the course.
People come from everywhere to the Olympics, naturally, but this crowd definitely had a British bias (I could tell by the number of Union Jack flags in the group), cheering each fence, live and on the screen, as they were aptly handled by their country's riders. Perfect weather, sunny and cool, added to the festive feeling.
While it was inspiring to see such enthusiasm for eventing, the frightening part was moving between fences against a sea of humanity. Talk about claustrophobia in the open air. Some obstacles, the exciting ones, had people 10-deep trying to get a glimpse of the action, and there was plenty of that.
Yes, yes, I know eventing "is not a dressage test." I get it. So, unfortunately, do Japan's Yoshiaki Oiwa and Italy's Stefano Brecciaroli, who were 1-2 at the conclusion of dressage yesterday.
Stefano was just too slow; part of his beautiful test in the arena was a great gallop down the long side, but apparently his mount, Apollo WD Wendi Kurt Hoev, couldn't keep it up while scaling the hill at Greenwich. He now stands 16th, with 11.2 times penalties added to his original score of 38.5 penalties. But Yoshi fared far worse. He took a tumble when he didn't sit up coming off a big step bank jump toward the Royal Greenwich Borough obstacle elements, and that was that. Japan's moment in the sun ended abruptly. It had been sixth, ahead of the U.S. yesterday. Now it's last, with three of five riders eliminated.
Australia, second to Germany in the rankings yesterday, also took a tumble. It sank to sixth after Clayton Frederick's horse, Bendigo, slipped and fell coming off the same step where Yoshi came to grief. The ground was soft in spots and demanded the proper studs in horses' shoes; course designer Sue Benson said they wouldn't have watered it yesterday if they knew it was going to pour in the afternoon.
British weather: If you don't like it, wait, it will change (and probably not for the better). Clayton's wife, Lucinda, had a refusal with Flying Finish, which didn't help matters (I wouldn't want to be sitting at their breakfast table until the smoke clears) and Sam Griffiths also had a fall with Happy Times, contributing to Australia's decline.
Canada was eliminated. The country that showed its stuff with a surprising silver medal at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games said goodbye to coach David O'Connor with disastrous performances as three riders were eliminated. Hawley Bennett-Awad had a fall from Gin & Juice that left her in the hospital with a concussion and a fractured sacrum.
David is taking over for Mark Phillips as coach (officially technical advisor) of the Americans after the Games. So let's talk about the U.S. The good news is that its squad moved up from seventh to fifth. The bad news is that its 138.8 penalties puts it far from the leading Germans (124.7), not to mention the second-place Brits(130.2) and third place Sweden (remember what I told you about Sweden two days ago? They were a stealth threat; now they're out in the open). Sweden's 131.4 penalties is just two ahead of New Zealand. The medals will be hard-fought tomorrow in the show jumping wrap-up, but I think it's safe to say that it will continue to be between Germany and the Brits for the gold medal.
Interestingly, all four of the women on the British team finished ahead of William Fox-Pitt. I was very surprised that he chose to ride the relatively inexperienced Lionheart here, instead of one of his big names, and it may have caught up with him today.
"My chap was tired. I do not know why -- it was unlike him. I had to nurse him home, but he went on jumping and galloping," said William, adding he was very glad that the female members of the team did well and took the pressure off him.
All eyes were on Zara Phillips, whose royal relatives, Prince William, Kate Middleton (can I still call her that, even though she's a duchess?), Prince Harry and others were on hand to cheer for her, along with Prince Charles' wife, Camilla.
All that moral support must have done the trick. Zara tore around the course on High Kingdom, as gutsy as they come, to stand 10th on her first wedding anniversary to rugby player Mike Tindall.
The U.S. riders had another lackluster day; they're just not firing here, but I hope they can move up with some good show jumping action. Boyd Martin had to lead off cross-country as the pathfinder with Otis Barbotiere, and picked up only 3.6 time penalties, but was sunk for good two days ago by his 50.7-penalty dressage score and stands 26th.
Karen O'Connor also accumulated time penalties with Mr. Medicott, 5.6 as he got stronger and she had to take a pull. That has put her in 24th place. Phillip Dutton is at the head of the pack, catching 2.8 time penalties on Mystery Whisper to stand 12th as the highest-place American. How often has that happened?
The least-experienced riders on the team, Will Coleman (Twizzel) and Tiana Coudray (Ringwood Magister) both had refusals. Luckily, only three of five riders' scores count in determining team placings.
While 15 entries were eliminated, nine riders were double-clear on course, more than four times the number Sue Benson had predicted would make it within the 10-minute, 3-second optimum time.
Speaking of predictions, I told you yesterday my money was on Mark Todd to be leading the way as of today. He's close, but not there. Tied for first place with 39.30 penalties after fault-free trips are Germany's Ingrid Klimke (daughter of the great dressage rider Reiner Klimke) on Butts Abraxxas and Sara Algotsson-Ostholt of Sweden. She rides Wega, a horse bred by her mother. Wega's dam is La Fair, ridden here by her sister, Linda. Talk about family connections! Oh, and Sara is married to Frank Ostholt, a member of the 2008 German gold medal team, whose former horse is Mr. Medicott. You could build a TV series around these relationships.
Back to Mark Todd: He nearly made me a genius by coming within 0.4 penalties of taking the lead with Campino, if only he could have finished on his dressage score of 39.1. But a risky last jump, where the horse put in an awkward stride, blew it for him and me. He's third.
"It was an awful lot of pressure because I had to go clear. It was not the ideal course because Campino is a big, long-striding horse," said Mark.
Okay, here's another prediction: The fabulous world and European champion Michael Jung, who leads the way on Sam for his team, will take the individual gold. He is 1.1 penalties behind Mark, but I just have a feeling...? Michael is the world and European champion and would be the first person to hold the Olympic title at the same time if it works out.
Finally, I want to say that Sue's course was brilliant. It tested and entertained at the same time. I asked the riders if it was a true 4-star and Michael said yes, when you combined the jumps with the terrain and the twisting track. Mark Todd was a little doubtful; he believes the Olympics is never really a 4-star.
Whatever it was, it did the job, offering great sport and safety, with no major injuries. Eventing made great strides today. It's had a rap as dangerous for man and beast, but since the 1992 Olympics, there have been reforms (not always popular) to make it safer. It has all come to beautiful fruition at this Olympics, and as? ground jury president Anne-Mette Binder of Denmark pointed out, riders are taking responsibility to "make sure...that the image of our sport is maintained."
There is even more that I could say about this glorious day, but I have to sleep sometime. Tomorrow, we'll see how my predictions turn out.