Olympic diary: Welcome to the people's sport (As long as the people are millionaires or holiday with the King of Morocco)
23:00 GMT, 2 August 2012
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The equestrian sport of dressage is
constantly battling accusations that it is somehow the preserve of a
privileged elite. This is clearly unfair.
Anyone can participate in dressage,
just as long as they have a top hat, tails, white gloves and a 1million
horse that can do ballet.
To suggest otherwise is to pander to
the kind of lazy, stereotypical prejudice the horsey fraternity quite
rightly wish to counter.
Huge advances are being made every
single day to make this sport more inclusive. If the sight of the
Queen’s granddaughter winning a silver medal this week wasn’t enough,
the presence of Prince Abdullah al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Alvaro Affonso
de Miranda Neto, husband of Athina Onassis, and Princess Nathalie Zu
Sayn-Wittgenstein of Denmark in the saddle at these Games should clinch
Horse play: Carl Hester on Uthopia
Then there are the 500,000 trailers
the horses are transported in, complete with luxury living quarters, and
the horse treadmills. Yes, treadmills. And the horse spas. Don’t forget
So dressage is for everybody. The
wealthy just get to do it better. Wealthy people like American
multi-millionaire Mitt Romney, the Republican currently bidding to
unseat Barack Obama.
After declaring he was ‘disconcerted’
by London’s attempt to stage the Games before a diplomatic visit, Mitt
showed the common touch again by revealing his family’s love of dressage
in the midst of his White House campaign.
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It’s a sure-fire vote-winner. If it
were not for baseball, basketball, gridiron, ice hockey, lacrosse,
overeating, drive-by-shootings, and every other known American activity
right down to ‘soccer’, there is little doubt the USA would embrace
dressage as the ‘people’s game’.
With her husband back at home, Romney’s wife, Ann, watched as Rafalca, the horse she co-owns, set out to make a mark at the Olympics. Rider Jan Ebeling even dismissed the idea that he was engaging in some rich man’s pursuit, despite the high-profile backers of his trusty steed.
‘Dressage can be done with a normal budget,’ he said, before declining to elaborate on exactly what a ‘normal budget’ might be.
Since Romney’s estimated worth is 200million, with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, Switzerland and elsewhere, and he is currently refusing to release tax returns that allegedly show he received a 50,000 tax break from owning Rafalca, ‘normal’ may look very different to Ebeling and Romney than it does to you and me.
Mrs Romney was still ‘thrilled to death’ with her horse’s 70.24 per cent score, which is markedly better than her husband’s campaign approval ratings. But the Americans were a distraction to the main event: a traditional battle between Germany and England, with Holland squashed in the middle.
All expenses paid: Rafalca's owners, including Ann Romney, left, purr at the horse's performance
The Germans excel at dressage. This is
no great surprise since one of the main elements appears to be
persuading a horse to goosestep across the arena. They have won every
Olympic team gold since 1945. Correction, since 1984.
However, this is merely one of the disciplines horse and rider must master when they perform on the raked sand of a dapper Greenwich Park, London’s oldest Royal Park.
Dressage dates back to the Renaissance when it was used as a system to train horses, and basic tests have apparently changed little since then.
The trademark move is the piaffe, where the horse jogs on the spot. There are also ‘flying changes’, skipping on alternate legs, the zig-zag, where they zigzag, and the passage (pronounced the same way as dressage).
After two controlled rounds, where judges mark disciplines out of 10 and award a percentage, the horses then ‘freestyle’ to music in the third. This finale happens next week, but I’m hopeful the routines may include the Lambada and the hokey cokey.
The dancing horses brought out the eternally passionate British public in vast numbers. There was barely a spare seat to be seen in the 21,000-capacity arena and the audience, a mix of curious townies and the country set, were engrossed.
London has been notable for the unbridled enthusiasm of this Games. But at the dressage it is well and truly bridled. The announcer tells the predominantly female audience to refrain from clapping, cheering and applauding when the competitors enter the arena for fear of frightening the horses.
Grand surrounds: Jan Ebeling and Rafalca compete
This is an alien concept. I was at the weightlifting yesterday where the appearance on stage of judges from every nation was met with polite applause, apart from the Brits who now appreciate how JLS must feel at the O2 Arena.
But day one in Greenwich provided the home crowd with plenty of encouragement as 45-year-old Carl Hester led the pursuit of Britain’s first dressage medal.
The 45-year-old, competing in his fourth Olympics, scored 77.72 per cent on his horse Uthopia, the highest of the opening session.
Hester, who learned to ride on donkeys while growing up on the car-free Channel Island of Sark, afterwards hailed his horse: ‘He was as cool as ice. If I say “Walk”, he walks. If I say “Stop”, he stops. He’s a bit like a computer with a furry body.’
Team-mate Laura Bechtolsheimer, grand-daughter of German billionaire Karl-Heinz Kipp, is in second place, while Charlotte Dujardin — the last of Britain’s European Championship trio — competes today.
Not short of a bob or two: Laura Bechtolsheimer
Team scores from these grand prix rounds are combined with those from next Tuesday’s grand prix special to decide the team medallists, with the individual gongs awarded 48 hours later.
Japan’s dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu intends to be there. But at the age of 71, the oldest competitor at London 2012 doesn’t take anything for granted. Asked how he felt when he made his debut at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he replied: ‘Er, I don’t really remember . . . ’
The day also marked Africa’s first entry into Olympic dressage with Morocco’s Yassine Rahmouni, riding Floresco. And how did all this come about
The 27-year-old revealed: ‘I actually met the King of Morocco on a jet ski when I was on holiday and he helped.’
Not that the sport is elitist or anything, of course.
New Zealand Herald writer Troy Rawhiti-Forbes complains: ‘In London the smell of sewage hangs in the air in a way I have only experienced in the worst-affected parts of Christchurch after the earthquakes.’ Someone get that man a sheep to use as an air freshener.
No problems strolling in with my new corkscrew. But what possible need is there for one at the dressage They don’t serve my favourite plonk, which is a nice bottle of Chateau Frere Jacques. Everyone makes do with champagne.