Markopoulo, Greece, August 18, 2004--On a night filled with chaos and confusion, America managed to bring home an Olympic eventing medal, courtesy of Kim Severson, winner of the individual bronze.
But exactly who owns the team medals remains to be seen, as three of the nations involved in the competition are considering an appeal of Germany's victory.
Gosh, I can't believe I have summed up five or so hours of tension in two paragraphs. The evening was, as U.S. coach Mark Phillips put it, "a rollercoaster" with so many twists and turns that he noted, "if you were reading it in a book, you wouldn't believe it."
The show jumping that wraps up the eventing competition started normally enough. The course for the team fray was beautiful, designed by Olaf Petersen of Germany, who also will be doing the routes for the grand prix jumpers. The fences themselves were impressive in their look, from the rails flanked by a sailboat and miniature lighthouse to another whose standards were like an intricate puzzle in green and blue. Orange and lemon trees were "planted" here and there, in keeping with the Mediterranean atmosphere.
The U.S., which had been fourth after Tuesday's cross-country, actually started today in third place. Overnight, William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain had withdrawn his horse, Tamarillo, so the Brits lost his very good score and dropped below America. The horse had a bone chip in his patella, and William said he didn't know how that happened because the Badminton winner flew around the cross-country.
Then the U.S. had a moment of tension in the final horse inspection, when one of its key scorers, Windfall II, was held for reinspection. Luckily, he passed the second time around, and as the judges offered their okay, Windfall's rider, Darren Chiacchia, gave an affectionate pull on one of the Trakehner's ears and kissed it.
Things looked good with the team intact, but keeping third place proved to be an impossible task for the U.S. Julie Richards on Jacob Two Two and Amy Tryon on Poggio II both produced clear rounds, but they would be the only two. And Poggio gave a few U.S. backers heart failure, as he came very close to the double combination and then cleared it in his inimitable, one-of-a-kind style, like a pogo stick. But neither Amy nor Julie's scores had counted for the team total up to that point. They had the most penalties after the first two phases, and the rules call for only the best three out of five scores to count.
Then John Williams and Carrick, the first of the combinations that contributed to the team total, had a near-disaster, dropping three rails. It was reminiscent of the 2002 World Equestrian Games, where John had been in the lead for the individual gold and lost it with four knockdowns. But at the WEG, the U.S. had such a big lead that it could afford the mishaps and still came away with the team gold.
There was no margin for error this time, however, and John's score was dropped to make way for Amy's, which was better by that juncture. Darren had two rails and then it was up to Kim. A perfect round would give the U.S. the bronze, and she nearly had it.
But at the final fence, a vertical of orange planks, Winsome Adante drifted left and got in too close. Though his front legs cleared the obstacle, he had it down behind. Kim's careful pace also yielded one time fault. That gave the British the bronze by 2.6 penalties, with France second and Germany gaining gold.
Downcast, poor Kim was devastated when she left the ring. I hated to ask her about the situation, but that's my job.
"I had to go clean," she said sadly, and not much more at that moment. Individually, Kim still had a shot, though. She was in third place, behind Germany's Bettina Hoy, in second on Ringwood Cockatoo. France's Nicolas Touzaint, the European champion, led the way with Galan de Sauvagere, who had put in remarkable performances in the first two phases and was clean in the team show jumping.
The medal presentations were saved until the evening, and we thought we were going to have an uneventful dinner hour before the individual final, which was being held under the lights--an Olympic first for eventers.
Then came the news of a "scoring discrepancy." It turned out that after being made aware of a problem, the ground jury investigated Bettina's round and found that she had completed two circles before the first jump. They charged her with 14 penalties, dropping her to eighth individually and putting her team fourth. The U.S. was in bronze medal position again. Jubilation! It was short-lived, however.
The Germans appealed the decision, the appeals jury put things back the way they were, and the medals were presented. The French, on the second level of the podium, seemed glum and didn't raise their bouquets of flowers with enthusiasm like the Germans did.
The French, British and Americans are hot, hot, hot about the situation, saying a rule had been violated and that Bettina should be penalized. The appeals jury, however, explained that someone or something malfunctioned after Bettina completed her first circle and when she looked at the clock, it restarted. So that's why she circled again.
"I didn't realize what I did. I looked at the (score)board and decided to ride another circle," said Bettina, explaining the clock had started again.
It was management's fault, the appeals jury said. My experience is that when a situation is a toss-up, officials always rule in favor of the athlete.
But the three countries named above are considering an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for sport. FEI (international equestrian federation) officials seemed to indicate that such an appeal would be difficult, if not impossible. U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor said his organization would be going to the chef de mission of the U.S. Olympic Committee to see if the appeal would be possible.
So stay tuned; I'll keep you posted. It wouldn't be the first time a medal was awarded after the fact. At the 1998 WEG, for instance, America came in fourth but wound up with the bronze after the Brits were disqualified because one of their horses had tested positive for a forbidden substance.
I will say from a sporting standpoint that this whole thing cast a pall over the evening. Well, the Olympics has never been immune from politics, as we all know. But I had to wonder what the Germans were thinking as they celebrated on the podium while their countrymen in the stands waved their red, yellow and black flags and chanted in congratulation. I also wondered what Princess Anne was thinking as she awarded the medals. She used to be president of the FEI; I'll bet she's glad she no longer has that honor!
You can imagine the stress everyone was going through for the individual finals. The lights were so bright it felt like daylight, but the situation was still difficult because the horses weren't used to jumping a round, being put back in their stalls and then being taken out to jump one more time.
That was Nicolas' explanation for why he had three rails; that, and the fact that the horse was tired. I would have bet yesterday that he'd have the gold medal, but Galan dropped three fences in a row and a fourth elsewhere to finish ninth.
Pippa Funnell of Great Britain (who has a wash-off tattoo of the British flag on her arm; that's all the fad here, flag tattoos) was right behind Kim in the standings. But she dropped a rail with Primmore's Pride to finish fourth.
Kim had some leeway, and she was clean until three fences from the end, where she had a rail. The bronze was hers for 45.2 penalties though, and I'm happy to report that she easily cleared the orange planks, which were in a different position than they had been in the afternoon.
"I decided this was for me and my horse," said Kim, explaining how she got up for the final round after all the turmoil. It's a lot different, she said, "than when you have the whole team riding on your shoulders."
Leslie Law of Great Britain, who rides the lovely Shear L'Eau, moved up to fifth following the afternoon jumping and aside from Amy (who finished seventh) was the only person with a double-clear for the day. That gave him the silver medal on 44.4 penalties.
When Bettina went in the ring, I had to admire her style. This time she made only one circle. She had the orange planks down (poetic justice?) but nothing else and even with two additional time penalties wound up with the gold on 41.6 penalties.
Bettina (who's married to Australian eventing ace Andrew Hoy) was a tearful winner. Understandable, considering her situation. She had said that doing well meant so much to her because she often shined in the dressage phase and then was never heard from again. She'll be celebrated in Germany though. This is the first time since 1936 (the infamous Berlin Olympics) that Germany has taken double gold in eventing.
I also was impressed because her last Olympic medal was 20 years ago in Los Angeles where she won the team bronze. Isn't it great that people can be players in this sport for so long?
I saved giving you the team scores until the end of my postcard because I had so much else to say. Germany won on 133.80 penalties; France had 140.4; Britain 143 and the U.S., 145.6. Lost it by a whisker...
On a sad note, I have to report that the Belgian team's horse Over and Over had to be put down following an injury he incurred on the cross-country course. Veterinarians had been hopeful they could save him, but the damage was found to be too great. It was decided the only course was to end his life while he was on the operating table.
Thursday's a rest day from medal competition, but I'll be back with you to share some more thoughts and a picture or two, so don't forget to stop at EquiSearch.