August 2, 2012 -- At the 2011 European Championships, the stands were packed for dressage, and less so for show jumping. There was much conversation about that, until the Brits made headlines with their first dressage gold medal.
Dressage has become the "in' thing in Britain, and most in the prediction business see the home team and Germany squaring off over the team gold at the Olympics. As Grand Prix dressage got under way today, there were very few empty seats, less than there were for eventing, which I always think of as the British national equestrian pastime.
British riders didn't let their fans down, finishing 1-2, with Carl Hester topped the rankings on the black stallion Uthopia (77.720 percent). Teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer finished on 76.839 with the flashy chestnut, Mistral Hojris.
Then it gets tricky. The British team leads (there are only three riders on a team) on 77.280 percent with perhaps the strongest combination, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro yet to come. Denmark is second with 73.305 and Spain third on 70.887. (While I had said in my preview that Spain might have an outside medal shot, I take it back because its strongest rider, Beatriz Ferrer-Salat, is not competing. Her horse, Delgado, is on the injured list.)
Germany and the U.S., however, are among the teams that had only one rider take part today, so it's not possible to come up with a definitive standing. However, Dorothee Schneider, riding the lovely Diva Royal, stands third for Germany with 76.277 percent. This black mare is as fluid as ink. When she walked out of the arena, I thought how well she fit her long-limbed rider, and was amazed at how supple and relaxed she seemed, despite the pressure.
Speaking of pressure, Jan Ebeling did a terrific job with Rafalca for the U.S.,? finishing 13th on 70.243 percent. His pressure involved not only the Olympic tension, but also the fact that Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is one of the owners of the mare and was watching with the other owners, Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling, Jan's wife.
Much has been made in the media about Ann's ownership, particularly by those who characterize dressage as an elitist sport in an effort to zing her husband, so Jan has been much in demand for interviews. But he's incredibly good-natured, from my perspective, and naturally was all smiles about the mare's performance today during his first Olympics, an experience he summed up as? "Wow."
Rafalca looked livelier to me than she did at June's Olympic trials, but the sizzling atmosphere in the arena can do that.
"She was amped up...more oomph in her movement," said Jan.
"The score didn't reflect what we thought it would be. It's by far my lowest percentage I've had in a few years. I hope it's just because the marks are low at this stage. I thought it was going to be a much bigger score.? We'll wait and see what happens with the rest of the competition because tomorrow a lot of the stronger combinations come. If they go well ahead, then we're going to have to think hard about how to change our performance," she noted.
Coincidentally, both she and Carl had the same mistake, an unprompted lead switch in the extended canter.
But that was minor stuff compared to what happened to poor David Marcus of Canada, whose horse, Capital, freaked out at a TV camera and the crowd moving around as rain came down. He couldn't get the horse going again, and was eliminated, which also eliminated the Canadian team, since there is no drop score.
There were so many good stories today. Hiroshi Hoketsu, who stands 17th for Japan? on Whisper, at 71 is the oldest competitor at the Games. Will he try for Rio in 2016? No: "My horse is too old for that and it's too hard to find another one."
Minna Telde of Sweden rides a one-eyed horse, Santana, 20th on 67.477 percent.
The fact that he is missing an eye is "an extra thing to take care of. He can see nothing to the left and has to rely on me to tell him it is okay. He has to believe me; it is a matter of trust between us."
Anky van Grunsven really isn't here to defend her 2008 individual gold medal with Salinero, now 18, who is ranked fifth (73.343). She came to London to help the Dutch team, but what happened this morning threw her for a loop. Her husband and coach through seven Olympics, Sjef Jannsen, became ill with the flu. It was a particular worry because he had a tumor removed last fall. But Swedish rider Patrik Kittel came to her aid and warmed her up. That type of cooperation means a lot, and it's in the spirit of the Olympics, which is pervasive.
The amazing thing here is that everyone is so tuned in to the Olympics, literally as well as figuratively. Get in a taxi, and the driver is listening to the Games. It doesn't matter whether it's judo (which was on today as I went back to my hotel); handball or sailing, patter about the competition is the soundtrack for this Olympiad. It goes without saying that the BBC is televising sports non-stop, making heroes out of people from the most obscure sports (okay, obscure to much of the American public) such as rowing and cycling.
This city (and the country) are justifiably proud of these Olympics, the third London has hosted. The first was in 1908; the second, 1948. London was supposed to hold the 1944 Games, but they were called off because of World War II. Amazingly, London stepped up in 1948, for what was called the "Austerity Olympics." At that time, even several years after peace was declared, things were still rough in Britain.
A friend of mine long had been telling me that his 86-year-old mother, Margaret Runcie, attended the 1948 Games, and I finally was able to meet her at a get-together. She came to London this week for the cross-country, and it was quite an experience for her. I asked her whether the size of the games and the number of nations taking part was mindboggling from her perspective, considering her last Olympics was 54 years ago when things were quite different.
The mention of bringing whatever you want to eat in '48 makes me realize how much things have changed. There are a lot of restrictions on items that can be brought to the park. Ticketholders were advised large bottles of water will not be allowed, but were told to bring empty bottles that they could fill at various fountains. The lines for that were unbelievably long. People who had spent hundreds of British pounds to take their families to the Games wound up missing the action because they didn't want to spend the equivalent of $2.50 for bottled water sold by vendors.? Go figure.
That's just an interesting observation, but looking at the big picture, what impresses me is that despite the size of these Games, everyone is friendly. Even volunteers who have the least lovely jobs -- the folks that get us on the buses going to the venues come to mind -- are smiling and cheerful, while taking their positions seriously.
For instance, I met a teacher from Kenya on the train who told me she was using her two-week leave to work at the Games, which meant she didn't have as much opportunity to enjoy a rare visit with family and friends as she would have liked.
I always ask the volunteers I run into why they bothered to take the time to help out, particularly since many of them never get to see an event.
The answer from them is always the same: "I just want to be a part of it."
The Games are something bigger than individuals, something to which it seems everyone can relate, even if you're not an athlete or a big sports fan.
Tomorrow we'll see the rest of the dressage riders, but the medals will have to wait. This is the first Olympics where the team medals will be decided not just on the Grand Prix, as was previously the case, but also on the Grand Prix Special. And we have some jumping Saturday, Sunday and Monday before dressage resumes.
We should get a good idea by tomorrow afternoon, however, of where the medals may be headed.