A gulf of 44 years — half a lifetime — lay between now and the last time Britain won an individual showjumping medal. In 1972, when Edward Heath was Prime Minister and John Betjeman was poet laureate, Ann Moore and Psalm claimed the silver — and, in 2016, in an atmospheric Deodoro stadium, Nick Skelton defied the odds to win Britain’s first ever individual gold in this discipline.
And those odds were certainly stacked against him. He once lay prone on a hospital bed with his neck broken, he’s had a hip replacement and has needed to mend many broken bones — but by London 2012 he was back to his very best and with his horse of a lifetime, Big Star, he helped Britain clinch team gold on home soil. It was the first Olympic gold for Britain for 60 years, although the individual medal eluded him — Big Star had just one fence down in the entire contest, but it came in the final round, scuppering the dream.
Skelton waited four long years. In that time, Big Star was injured and on the sidelines, just like his rider had been many times, and so his return is not only testament to Skelton’s patience, but also to excellent stable management.
It was, therefore, understandable that Skelton had to wipe away tears as he stood on the podium alongside silver medallist Peder Fredricson, a Swedish former event rider, and bronze winner Eric Lamaze of Canada as the Union Flag was raised high and the National Anthem played.
This had been a long journey with a dream that once looked impossible to achieve. Was there a dry eye in any equestrian loving house in the UK, either?
But it wasn’t just Nick and Big Star’s three clear rounds and the fastest time in the final six-man jump off that won gold in Rio. Gary and Beverley Widdowson, Big Star’s owners, deserve huge praise for keeping such a great horse in Britain when so many are sold abroad. Now they have their just reward — an Olympic gold medal is something money cannot buy.
There were other horses competing in Brazil that had, at some time in their careers, passed through British hands. Canada’s Tiffany Foster was riding Tripple X, who was also on that 2012-gold-medal winning British team, Skelton’s former ride Carlo 273 was piloted by Sergio Alvarez Moya for Spain, while World Champion Jeroen Dubbeldam’s Zenith was produced by Andrew Saywell.
If Britain is to remain in contention for medals on the Olympic stage, other owners will need to follow the Widdowsons’ lead and showjumping will need to look at how it can retain its best horsepower.
For anyone thinking that a couch potato lifestyle goes with coming close to pensionable age, think again. Skelton is 58 and has shone in a tough sport in which age is no barrier if there is a will to succeed.
In fact, the combined age of the British show jumping team was 208 years, with 33-year-old Ben Maher the definite baby of a team that was topped by 61-year-old John Whitaker. This led to the Evening Standard dubbing the squad Dad’s Army, and although they failed to cover themselves in glory in the team contest — not making it through to the second team round and finishing 12th out of 15 teams — two out of the four (Skelton and Ben Maher) qualified for the individual contest, the latter bowing out with 17 faults from the two individual rounds.
But Britain wasn’t alone in boasting a largely veteran team. France fielded Roger Yves Bost (Bosty), who last rode for his country at an Olympics 20 years ago in Atlanta. He celebrated his 50th birthday last year and did everything, including riding in his own inimitable style, to ensure that his country sprung a surprise and captured team gold here.
Showjumping is frequently a sport of surprises. The Dutch, reigning World Champions, were fancied gold material, as were the Germans. Both were on zero penalties following the first team round. However, only the legendary Ludger Beerbaum and Casello went clear in round two for the Germans—and the 52-year-old later announced his retirement from the national team.
The Dutch challenge also fell apart at this stage, not helped by the disqualification in the qualifying round of Jur Vrieling for violation of the FEI’s ‘blood rule’ after he hit Zirocco Blue following two stops. This is something the sport needs to consider. Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts was also disqualified, for excessive use of spurs. When countless millions people worldwide tune into these images, this creates a seriously bad impression — not to mention potential harm to the horse — and the equestrian world will need to get its house in order before Japan.
Germany did receive compensation in the form of a bronze medal when they jumped off against the on-fire Canadians. But in many ways, it was the latter nation who deserved to stand on the podium for the positive way they approached these games. Every one of their riders had gone through the start flags of each round meaning business.
Brazilians enjoy showjumping and the stands around the stadium filled up far more for this discipline than they had for the previous evening and dressage contests. A partisan crowd reserved their biggest cheers for their own riders. Fortunately, they had three in individual round A to keep home side hopes alive.
Qatar, too, fielded a trio in the final. Relative newcomers to big stage showjumping this nation boasts horsepower to die for — who didn’t want to take home Sheikh Ali Al Thani’s brave and bold First Division? It all goes back to horsepower, which Dutchman Jan Topps has helped this emerging nation to source.
So there was so much to like about the show jumping in Rio. Now we have to endure a long four-year wait for more of the same.
Images, top to bottom: Individual showjumping podium, by Arnd Bronkhorst; Nick Skelton finds out he’s won, by Richard Juilliart; team showjumping podium, also by Richard Juilliart, all courtesy of the FEI