Can any Olympic Games before Rio have faced more hurdles? There was Zika, pollution and rampant crime, coupled with the fact that construction at the Deodoro equestrian venue ran severely late. Imagine the surprise of its detractors, therefore, when the organising committee staged a stunning three-day event that proved thrilling from start to finish. The only apparent ‘hitch’ was a stray bullet that flew into the media centre but fortunately caused no injury.
The disappointment for those watching from abroad must have been all those empty seats in the stands. While London 2012 was a sell-out, with even eventing dressage proving popular, barely one-tenth of the seats appeared sold for dressage day one in Rio, the cash-strapped locals uninterested and those from abroad put off by what they read in the papers. Who didn’t wish that they could have been beamed from the Starship Enterprise to Deodoro for a day or two?
Michael Jung was always going to have a ticket to South America and even having to ride his ‘second string’, Sam FBW, his London-2012, Badminton and Burghley victor — the list of wins is long — was far from a handicap.
Lying fifth after the dressage, the extraordinary German became the only competitor to complete on his dressage score, providing further affirmation, if any were needed, that he is the greatest protagonist the sport has ever seen.
Only three men have now won back-to-back Olympic gold (Charles Pahud de Mortanges, Mark Todd and Michael Jung), and the German could stand and listen to his National Anthem safe in the knowledge that he had negotiated one of the most difficult Olympic cross-country tracks in years.
Despite renowned course-designer Pierre Michelet having apparently been chosen for the role by default — rumour has it he was the only shortlisted designer to turn up for interview — the cross-country boasted his typical tough and technical stamp and destroyed the dreams of many medal hopefuls, including the dressage leader, William Fox-Pitt, who blamed himself for Chilli Morning’s ‘fly past’ at the Ski Jump fence.
A gold for Fox-Pitt, who lay in a coma after a horrific fall at Le Lion d’Angers last October, would have beaten even Aldaniti and Bob Champion’s Grand National victory for an ‘against the odds’ story, but sadly it wasn’t to be, although two clean jumping performances saw him finish a still incredible 12th.
Sadly for the supporters with Union Flags, there wasn’t much to cheer about beyond three great clear rounds in the show jumping qualifier for Fox-Pitt, Pippa Funnell and Kitty King, but by then it was too late and too many penalties had been accrued on cross-country day.
It wasn’t the swansong event performance manager Yogi Breisner (who now retires, having been at the helm since 1999) had been hoping for, but sometimes a new broom can sweep clean and maybe now the Brits can look forward to a different name looking at fresh strategies that will take them to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
But Rio proved that even the best can have an off day, and for Christopher Bartle’s German squad this time it was Monday, when, from their fancied quartet, only Jung recorded a clear round, while Ingrid Klimke and Sandra Auffarth racked up an uncharacteristic 20 penalties for run outs and their rookie Julia Krajewski incurred elimination.
But such was their dressage advantage and speed despite their faults, combined with classic clear rounds on the final day, that they clawed their way back into silver position and hugged and kissed the four relatively untried team gold medal-winning French riders, including individual silver medallist Astier Nicolas, during a prize-giving that showed the genuine camaraderie of the sport that others must surely envy.
Even Christopher Burton, the cross-country leader who let victory slip from his grasp on the final day, wore a beaming smile. He will always retain the memory that Santano II put up one of the most brilliant rounds of all on cross-country day, as did gutsy Japanese Yoshi Oiwa, who looked 110% committed to getting The Duke of Cavan over all 33 fences clear, determined not to find himself walking home as he did in London four years ago.
So what can we conclude from the three-day event in Rio 2016? That the cream of the sport rose to the top, and that if at first you don’t succeed you should try, try and try again. This is the ethos of Phillip Dutton, a five-times Olympian, first for his native Australia and, more recently, for the USA. Dutton is now the proud owner of an individual bronze medal — and one that is so deserved for dogged determination.
While Pierre Michelet’s cross-country course has earned plenty of plaudits, eventing’s place within the Olympic family may be built on sand. A fatal injury to a rider could end this century-long association, so why were there so few deformable fences boasting frangible pins and why a huge ‘table’, the Knowledge Bridge, two fences from home when some horses were leg weary? ‘Table’ fences cause more fatal injuries in this sport than any other and yet they continue to be used at this level and below. This time, eventing got lucky at the greatest sporting show on earth. Maybe, at the next Olympics it won’t.
The eventing team podium at Deodoro Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro by Arnd Bronkhorst/FEI