There were two destinations one could choose from in deciding where to attend the 2008 Olympic Games. For people who didn’t know better, they chose to go to Beijing, where they could watch the nail-biting excitement of Ping Pong, Air Rifle (translation – BB Gun), Water Polo (how could those horses hold their breath for so long), and Fencing (what happened? I blinked - it’s over). They could also take in the Chinese pre-school gymnastic team, who, when not competing with the other legal-aged teenagers, and chasing gold medals like children after an ice cream truck, could be seen lounging around in their ‘Hello Kitty’ pajamas and eating skittles. And if you witnessed these events, it’s probably because the wind blew the smog out of the sky - unless the smog was digitally reproduced like the fireworks in the opening ceremony, and the wind was really a big fan. And if that was the case, were these Games real?
“There was no dilemma for those people who chose to go to Hong Kong to experience the Olympics. These were the real games - with nine-year-old athletes competing against 14 year-olds, and men competing against women, and 60 - plus year-old seniors going up against sportsmen half their age. These were the games of teamwork and partnership, not individual selfish glory. And although half of the medal winners were not allowed on the podium, for fear it would collapse, these games had it all – excitement, tension, scandal, affirmation, and redemption, all rolled into the nine days of the Olympic equestrian events.
The site of the equestrian venue was the racetrack at Sha Tin, complete with seating for 18,000, air-conditioned stabling for 200 horses, 13 training arenas including one that was air conditioned, and the main arena, along with several cooling stations to keep the horses from overheating in the intense heat and humidity of Hong Kong this time of year. The cross-country phase of the Eventing competition was held at the Beas River Country Club and Hong Kong Golf Club, where the golf course served as the cross-country course for horse and rider. Par would be required on this course in order to contend for a medal.
The Eventing phase teed it up on August 10 and after the dressage stage, which according to reports left many Chinese spectators asleep in their seats, the teams moved on to cross-country. The U.S. team, which had done well in the dressage phase, had a disappointing outing on cross-country and finished seventh.
The real battle was being played out between the leading Germans and the Australians. Germany was leading going into showjumping after the grueling cross-country phase. The show-jumping segment is designed to test how well the horses bounce back from the rigors of the cross-country endurance phase, but all the horses looked ready and eager to jump. Germany took the team gold in an exciting showdown with Australia that went down to each team's last rider, and they were separated by only one dropped rail.
After the team round, the obstacles were raised and the riders then jumped again to determine individual medals with the result once more in doubt until the end. The US’s Gina Miles and her mount, McKinlaugh, went clean in both rounds and moved from fifth to second and an Individual Silver Medal. Eventing competitions are usually held in daytime, but the show jumping was held at night here for lower temperatures to benefit the horses. Miles said jumping under the bright lights gave her an edge. "He's a big horse and I'm a small rider and that gave him extra life," she said.
Making her Olympic debut, Miles was an alternate for the 2004 Games and helped the US to team gold in the Pan Am Games. Gina and her wonderful horse McKinlaugh salvaged what was a disappointing outing for the US Team, who had medaled in the previous three Olympics.
Dressage took center stage as the next discipline to be judged at these games. Frankly, dressage is like ice-skating when it comes to Olympic events. The judging always leads to controversy. Apparently, when you are so good, as Germany’s Isabella Werth is, your horse can refuse the pirouette and you still come out on top.
A controversial meeting was held after the team test at 1:30 in the morning. Present were FEI officials, judges, and riders from three national teams. Rumor has it that there were discussions about one of the judge’s low scores for teams other than the Germans. At this time, no official information about the context of this meeting has been made, but this is the kind of controversy that seems to go hand in hand with dressage judging.
It was no surprise when Germany won the Team Gold. The Netherlands, led by superstar Anky van Grunsven, had to settle for silver, while Denmark earned their first-ever Olympic dressage team medal – a bronze. Steffen Peters, the anchor rider for the US Team, did everything he could to coax a brilliant performance out of Ravel to secure a team bronze medal, but Debbie McDonald had a completely uncharacteristic performance on Brentina that put the Americans in a hole they couldn’t get out of. Perhaps the brilliant horse was already thinking about her retirement instead of concentrating on the task at hand. It was the first time the US failed to medal since the 92’ games.
In the individual freestyle finals, Anky van Grunsven won her third Olympic Dressage Gold Medal on her brilliant horse Salinero. Unless Anky retires, she will own the freestyle for years to come.
Showjumping took its place on center stage, and personally, this is Olympic competition at its finest. Judges, with their nationalistic interests, have no impact on the outcome of showjumping. Leave the rails up and you can win a medal even if you lose a stirrup or almost fall off your horse.
With the Germans winning the first two equestrian team gold medals, it looked like they might sweep these games because of the strength of their jumping team. But as fate would have it, the Germans uncharacteristically fumbled and faulted their way out of medal contention in both the team and individual. It would be the first shutout for a German showjumping team since the 1952 Helsinki Games!
With Germany out of the picture, the door was wide open for several teams, but the story of this Olympic Showjumping competition was Team Canada.
Oh, Canada! How else can you describe what this country pulled off in these Olympics? Team Canada's showjumping phase began with the news that Mac Cone's horse, Ole, would be withdrawn as he was unsound. "The odds are that you have no chance with a team of just three but you gotta try," said team captain Ian Millar. Indeed, not having the advantage of a drop score is huge in competition of this magnitude.
Despite the odds, Canada was excelling under the pressure and was in first position in the final round with stellar performances from Jill Henselwood and Eric Lamaze. But it was Captain Canada, Ian Millar and In Style, who would lay down a critical clear round to keep Canada in contention for a gold.
With the US team’s rock-solid line up of Will Simpson, Laura Kraut, McLain Ward, and Beezie Madden, it would come down to the anchor ride by Madden to determine the final. With Canada holding onto the lead with 20 total faults, Madden would have to go clear to win. And it was looking good until her horse Authentic had a foot on the tape at the bogey water jump, which placed Canada and the US in a jump-off for gold.
You could cut the air with a knife as McLain Ward led the way in the jump-off, throwing down the gauntlet with the coolest clear from the talented Sapphire. When Henselwood, who had been clear up until now, lowered a rail at fence two, the Canadians began to look vulnerable. Laura Kraut piled on the pressure with an amazing ride with Cedric who also left the fences intact, but Erik Lamaze pulled it back for Canada by going for broke and producing the quickest clear round with Hickstead. If Will Simpson made a mistake then it would all fall back on Ian Millar to win it for Canada. But a powerful clear from Simpson on Carlsson Vom Dach sealed the deal - it was all over and the US held that precious gold while the short-handed Canadians embraced an unlikely, but well earned, silver. Norway took the bronze for their first ever showjumping medal.
It was a historic final round on several fronts. The US won back-to-back Olympic Gold medals for the first time, and for Canada, it was their first Olympic medal in 40 years. More impressive was that Canada did it with three riders, and for Ian Millar, well, what can one say. The 61-year-old rider had just completed his ninth Olympics, and finally, he had a medal to show for it.
"I've been riding on Canadian teams for 39 years," said Millar, “and there have been a lot of good days, but the Olympic Games have never gone my way so to be part of this is remarkable. I want to say thanks to my great team and horses and to the team that has been behind us all.” Thank you, Ian, for giving us a moment to remember, and an image of perseverance and class that should be an inspiration to all.
The Americans, meanwhile, had to have been happy, albeit, a bit stunned and Laura Kraut admitted that the final sequence of events had taken her by surprise. "I was a bit dazed and confused going into the jump-off, we weren't really sure it was going to happen until the last minute and our horses were already going back to the stables - there was no time to think about it. I just knew, going in, that I needed to be clear and fast and it just turned into our night - the Canadians made us work for it though!" she pointed out.
The fairy tale was not over for Canada. The finale of the Hong Kong games was the individual showjumping final, and Canada’s Erik Lamaze and Hickstead won the gold medal in a performance that was the epitome of redemption for a rider that has had some troubled times. Earning the first ever individual jumping gold for Canada, Lamaze has rebuilt his life after a couple of failed drug tests booted him from two Olympic teams and put his life and career in jeopardy. "The past is the past," he said, "and if this doesn't make people forgive and forget then I don't know what will." Look up the word hero. You’ll see a picture of Lamaze.
Beezie Madden added to her impressive resume as the veteran of US showjumping rode a solid round to add an Individual Bronze medal to her collection. Her consistency has been a key to the US’s success for many years.
An American triumph, a Canadian moment to remember full of inspiration, affirmation, and redemption, and a first for Norway, made this one of the most exciting and gratifying Olympic showjumping finals ever.
So there you have it - nine days of heartbreak and joy, breakthroughs and collapses, and the spine-tingling moments and back-stories that you never forget. These are the elements that made these Olympics the spellbinding event that it was. Oh yeah, and there was some of that over in Beijing too!
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