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Hong Kong, August 21, 2008 -- North America, which dominated the Olympic team show jumping, did the same in the individual medal finals, as the equestrian events of the Olympic Games ended today with an electrifying pair of jump-offs.
Canada's silver medal team member Eric Lamaze, who missed two Olympics because of positive drug tests, made his comeback in a big way to take the gold medal aboard Hickstead. He produced a sparkling clear round in a match against the clock with Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden, who got the silver on Ninja after dropping a rail. Beezie Madden of the USA's gold medal team found herself in a seven-way tie for the bronze on Authentic, necessitating a pressure-filled tiebreaker that ended when she beat Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum of Germany by 0.12 seconds.
"I know I have a fast horse and if anybody had a good chance, I probably did," said Beezie.
Her teammate, McLain Ward, rode before she did and was flying on Sapphire until he bashed the last fence to finish sixth.
"I wanted to win a medal, and we tried our very, very hardest. I tried to leave one (stride) out at the last, and we gave it everything we had," said McLain, whose gamble didn't pay off.
But he was full of praise for Sapphire, calling her "spectacular. In regulation jumping, she had (just) one down all week. She's an amazing animal."
While he was on course, McLain jumped a bush as a time-saving shortcut and suggested that route for Beezie, who followed suit.
"It was a good risk for me to take to try to be faster than Meredith, because my horse is very brave and very handy, and he can handle stuff like that," said Beezie.
She beat an incredible group of riders in earning her title. Meredith, who rode her superstar Shutterfly, is ranked number one in the world. Right behind her was the defending Olympic gold medalist, Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil on the rather inexperienced Rufus, who was much slower. McLain had the faster of the 4-fault rounds and was followed in the placings by Germany's Ludger Beerbaum (All Inclusive). Marc Houtzager of the Netherlands (Opium) was the quicker of two 8-fault rounds while his teammate, Angelique Hoorn, finished ninth on O'Brien.
Beezie, who is normally very low-key, couldn't stop smiling as she talked about her medal.
It was an even more emotional time for Eric. He was dropped from the 1996 and 2000 Canadian teams for drug infractions, though the penalties later were overturned. Since then, he has had a hugely successful career and been a big winner with Hickstead, a Dutch-bred stallion he got as a seven-year-old. The horse underwent colic surgery early in the year, but made his own comeback as one of the biggest winners in the sport to this point.
As he finished his jump-off round, Eric threw his red and white helmet emblazoned with the Canadian maple leaf into the stands, then put his head back in ecstasy and gratitude, letting it all soak in.
His incredible reversal of fortune paid off in the only individual gold medal ever won by a Canadian in Olympic show jumping, on the heels of its first team medal in the discipline in 40 years.
"I'm really proud of myself and the people who supported me," said Eric, who rightly gloried in a very special night, lit by the Olympic flame, after the years of darkness that he experienced.
He added he hoped he has put the past to rest, and that people won't bring it up again.
Laura Kraut, the third American rider participating, had a foot in the water and a rail down with Cedric, so did not come back for the second round. But Laura was very pleased with her little gray gelding, the surprise winner of the selection trials, who made a big leap forward to be part of the team because he wasn't very experienced.
While the fourth member of the U.S. squad, Will Simpson, qualified for the individual finals, he could not compete because the rules state only three team members can take part in the individual competition, so he spent the night as an interested spectator.
With fears that a typhoon might be coming in to land during the evening, it seemed as if it would be best to wrap things up as quickly as possible. While the course designers realized there could be a jump-off after two rounds, they didn't think there would be so many horses involved. They were talking about it all afternoon, but figured it would be a three-way tie involving World Champion Jos Lansink of Belgium on the fabulous gray, Cumano.
Surprisingly, he had two rails down to finish in a tie for 10th.
"We were counting on him to be our third one, but it just didn't happen. Then the 4-faulters really played into the second round. It made it exciting," said Steve Stephens, who designed the beautifully put-together courses with Leopoldo Palacios.
The first round began with 34 horses. Twenty-two came back to try a different, shorter course. Everyone started from scratch tonight, with no faults carried over from earlier in the week, and nine contenders had no faults after the first round. What happened was that of that group, only Eric and Rolf were double-clear. But many of those who had a knockdown in the first round came back to go clear, including McLain, Rodrigo and Meredith. Meanwhile, Beezie, who had been fault-free in the first round, had the last part of the triple combination down to put her into the tie.
When it finally got sorted out, a strange thing happened. Both Eric and Rolf were clocked in exactly the same time, 36.39 seconds. If Eric had dropped a rail, there would have been yet another jump-off, which might have tried everyone's patience and been a bit much to ask of the horses.
The medal presentation ceremony was joyful as always, but I think Eric's happiness made it even more memorable--especially since it was the last note of these amazing Games.
So that was the high. The low came earlier in the day, when the FEI (international equestrian federation) announced that four riders who had qualified for the individual finals were suspended because their horses tested positive for a forbidden substance.
I wonder if you've heard of this one: capsaicin. It comes from peppers and has dual properties. The substance can sensitize skin, which is a big no-no (some unscrupulous people could use it to make horses afraid to hit the rails) and it also has some pain-relieving qualities.
Those suspended were Tony-Andre Hansen of Norway, who was standing first individually on Camiro after the Nations' Cup, Bernardo Alves of Brazil, Christian Ahlmann of Germany and Denis Lynch, Ireland's only representative at the Games.
Lynch appeared at a press conference to say he was "shattered" by the suspension and had "begged" the FEI to let him ride. He said the source of the drug was a product he rubbed on his horse's back as part of his warm-up. While the jar lists capsaicin as an ingredient, it also says that it will not test positive.
Oh, I have heard that before, and I could name some very, very prominent show jumpers who found out the hard way a few years ago that such a guarantee is meaningless.
Oddly, the Irish team veterinarian said there was no specific list from the FEI of prohibited substances, just categories that are prohibited.
But I asked an FEI spokeswoman, and she said a definite list is available. That's sort of a moot point anyway though because Denis never mentioned to the vet that he was using this stuff. He had a really good shot at a medal, as his horse, Lantinus, has been winning all over Europe.
Worse yet, this was reminiscent of Ireland's experience in the last Olympics, when Cian O'Connor had to give back the individual gold after his horse tested positive for an illegal substance.
A lot of people thought the drug situation would be different here than it was in Athens, where the team show jumping gold also changed hands because of a drug issue. You see, the fabulous lab on the premises of the Hong Kong Jockey Club was doing pre-testing, so riders could see whether their horses' systems showed any traces of forbidden substances. That way, they could correct the situation before the real testing was done.
Interestingly, Denis said Lantinus was tested and nothing came up.
There is more in the way of formalities to go through, including testing the "B" samples of all the horses (samples are split to double-check.) If the test results of Tony-Andre's horse stand, Norway will lose the team bronze to Switzerland. That is rather sad, as it was Norway's first team medal in show jumping, and its first time in the competition since 1936.
Well, this wraps it up for tonight. Next up will be the show jumping gallery, and then I'll probably do one more piece about the Olympics before moving on to next weekend's Hampton Classic. It will be good to get home! But I'll miss being able to say, "Choi keen" to you every night.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer is covering her eighth Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.
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