Long may she rein! Zara can put previous Games heartache behind her
01:55 GMT, 28 July 2012
The Princess Royal’s memory of her Olympic experience as a competitor is not so much a blur as a blank and, therefore, not much use to her daughter, who makes her debut in the dressage element of eventing at Greenwich Park on Sunday.
‘She can’t remember much about it,’ Zara Phillips says of her mother’s efforts at Montreal in 1976.
‘She fell off and landed on her head. It was a heavy fall. She knocked her head and they put her back on the horse. She finished the course concussed.’
My kingdom for a horse: Zara Phillips needs a firm grip and a keen eye to keep her mount High Kingdom under control
The then 26-year-old Princess Anne apparently demonstrated considerable courage in getting to the finish. But it could not happen now. For safety reasons, anyone falling during the Games these days is eliminated. Officials throw riders out, not back into the saddle.
At the 1976 Montreal Games, Zara’s mother Princess Anne was the only female British team member who did not have to submit to a gender test before competing.
The Princess Royal can, however, tell Team GB’s most photographed member what it is like to compete under a media microscope switched to the highest magnification. As the Queen’s granddaughter, her every false piaffe and volte will be analysed, her every refusal (to jump or talk) will be the subject of much discussion.
If she wins a gold medal, she could be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year (for a second time); if she shares in team failure then it will be her fault. But, hey, that all goes with the territory and it is not as if her connections are not useful in acquiring decent horses and more than decent sponsorship. Pity her not.
Where Phillips does deserve sympathy is in the misfortune which excluded her from the last two Olympics. An injury to her ‘inspiration’, the now retired Toytown on which she won the 2006 World Championship, cost her likely selection ahead of Athens in 2004.And four years ago another injury to her favourite horse ruled her out of the Beijing Games.
Chance at last: After two missed opportunities Zara Phillips will finally compete at the Olympics
The heartache would have been no less because she was a royal. Not only that but an ambitious daughter of a father who won eventing team gold in 1972 and silver in 1988. Dad can tell her not only about competing in the Olympics but having an Olympic gold medal ceremoniously placed around one’s neck. And not many British eventers know that feeling. Certainly not anyone below free-bus-pass age.
Since 1972 Great Britain have been seeking and failing to emulate the blue riband gold medal won by Phillips, Richard Meade and Co in Munich. They have travelled hopefully and returned disappointedly.
No travelling this time, and in world No 1 William Fox-Pitt, plus Mary King, who headed the rankings last year, they boast two riders of exceptional ability and with a huge depth of experience. This will be the elongated Fox-Pitt’s fourth Olympics and the irrepressible King’s sixth, equalling the record of javelin legend Tessa Sanderson.
Part of the team: Tina Cook, Mary King, William Fox-Pitt, Zara Phillips and Nicola Wilson form the Great Britain Equestrian team
King is already contemplating a seventh. ‘I am definitely planning to go to Rio in 2016,’ she declared to the surprise of nobody, neither her team-mates nor her family.
In fact, family is the main reason for her desire to continue to Brazil, by which time she will be 55. Freddie, her football-mad teenage son who has been training at the Exeter City school of excellence, finds Brazil an attractive proposition.
‘It’s funny, Freddie used to nag me about giving up,’ King told Sportsmail. ‘We used to say London would be a good time. Then he heard that Brazil had won the bid.
Suddenly, it was, “Mummy, you have got to go there”.’
Family footsteps: Princess Anne competed at the Olympics in 1976
That would suit her daughter, Emily, just fine. The 17-year-old is already a stalwart of the British junior team and aiming to make her Olympic debut in Rio. Mother and daughter competing in the same Olympics in the same team and in the same event (and winning gold medals) would represent some story.
That’s for the future. For the present, King is keen to upgrade the team silver she won in Athens and the bronze four years ago in Hong Kong (the far-removed equestrian venue for the Beijing Olympics).
‘Team gold is long overdue,’ King said. ‘And, of course, I am desperate to complete the set.’
Germany, the reigning champions, will start as clear favourites, with their star trooper Michael Jung bidding to become the first man to hold simultaneously the world, European and Olympic titles. But Australia and New Zealand from the southern hemisphere are sure to challenge strongly for medals.
Crowd puller: Zara Phillips carried the Olympic flame at Cheltenham Racecourse
Apart from Phillips, King and Fox-Pitt, the Great Britain team includes Tina Cook, the individual bronze medallist from Beijing, returning on her Miners Frolic, and debutant Nicola Wilson, who many thought was unlucky not to make the original selection. She replaced Piggy French, perceived as a big loss to the team.
Whisper it, lest the Tower beckons, but Phillips could be Britain’s weak link with her comparatively inexperienced horse High Kingdom not the strongest in dressage.
Can she withstand the pressure
AN OUTSIDER’S GUIDE TO EVENTING
Eventing will be one of the most stunning spectacles of the fortnight, with the London skyline providing a picturesque backdrop behind Greenwich Park during the competition.
HOW DOES IT WORK
There are 13 teams, 22 nations and 75 competitors taking part. Teams consist of a minimum of three and maximum of five horse-rider combinations, with the three best results counting for team classification. The team and individual competitions run concurrently.
THAT SOUNDS JUST LIKE THREE-DAY EVENTING
That's exactly what it is, except the three disciplines now run over four days.
SO HOW DOES IT SPLIT UP
The dressage takes place over the weekend. Each rider carries out a predetermined test of movements within a 60m x 20m arena which is judged for the horse’s obedience and movement, the rider’s control and the overall impression. The marks of the three judges are averaged. Poetry for the purist, torture for the layman.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
On Monday comes the cross-country. The boldness of rider and horse are tested over a course of approximately 5,700 metres which must be completed within a time limit of 10 minutes. Riders incur 20 penalties per refusal and 0.4 penalties per second over the allotted time. One fall or three refusals precipitate elimination. Thrills and spills in the glamour part of the sport.
Tuesday brings the climax and last event — jumping. After the exertions of the previous day, the ability of the horse to jump carefully over less demanding fences is tested. There are four penalties for a fence down, four for a refusal and elimination for a fall or two refusals. A second jumping test takes place after the team jumping the same day. It is open to the top 25, including ties for 25th place, with a restriction of three horse-rider combinations per country. Medal time.