Event organizer and EN guest writer extraordinaire has kindly sent us her thoughts about the Olympics as the dust settles on a disappointing trip to London for North America.
There is an urban legend that appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is the kiss of death for any athlete or team of athletes. I couldn’t help but think of this as I watched the London Olympics unfold earlier this month. Had our riders in all three Olympic disciplines been on the cover of S.I. without our knowing it? Beezie, McLean, Boyd, Phillip, Stefan. They were all touted as the American steady and reliable Team stalwarts who would lead the charge toward American medals. The closest we came to the podium in eventing was Karen on a new partner who had nonetheless raised some eyebrows earlier this spring, Rich in jumping, a relative unknown who was enjoying a great streak and Steffen who finished in the teens, dismal for him and the lovely Ravel. I even read an opinion on a Forum bemoaning the selection of Tiana and Will to the Eventing team because of the pressure it would put on Phillip and Boyd. Hello? Sadly, the court of public opinion can be insidious.
I watched a similar phenomenon also in several other sports. Michael Phelps didn’t medal in his first race that he “had in the bag” and admitted that he had not trained hard enough. The totally dominating U.S. basketball team phoned in the first part of the gold medal game against Spain and only managed to squeak by. Gabby Douglas was an overnight sensation and media darling early in the week, but failed on her best apparatus after being labeled a shoo in for a second individual gold. Michael and Gabby were able to regroup and win medals in later competitions, a luxury not shared by the equestrians.
And the point of all this?
Competition can be a treacherous Goddess, even more so at the Olympic level where everyone is just so damn good. Lose focus for a nanosecond, cheat on your training regimen, and you flirt with disaster. In our horse sports, you are also dealing with a living partner who, like you, is subject to bad days. I’ve yet to see a kayak with a headache or suffering from lack of sleep!
The Brits were nothing short of spectacular. When they swept the Dressage Team and Individual medals, leaving the perennially favored Germans and Dutch, (including the rollkur Queen herself), in the dust, I was amazed. It seems I had dozed through the last decade of “Big D” Dressage and never noticed that they had quietly been moving up the competitive ladder. When I last followed such things, they were in mid pack. They were seriously hungry for this success; much like the Canadian eventers, going in to the WEG in 2010.
One athlete at the Games during one of those deathless post event interviews said that it is harder to win the second and third medals than to win the first one. It’ll be interesting to see if the Brits can maintain. Their eventers have, but they seem to be a different breed altogether. The Canadians have sadly fallen apart since their moment in the sun in Kentucky. Did they fall victim to believing their own press clippings?
Success can be a humbling double-edged sword. Ask anyone who one weekend gets top scores, and the next finishes at the bottom of the heap. We get lured into a comfortable sense of infallibility and lose that motivating thirst for success.
I can’t accept the “bad luck/what if” string of excuses. Yes, bad luck does happen. Otis injured himself on course. Amistad’s injury caused the sad end of a lovely horse’s career. These I believe are Acts of God bad luck. Pilot error/break in focus mishaps aren’t.
What is the answer? I wish I knew, and I hope David O’Connor and whoever ends up with the Canadians can figure out a solution. One thing seems to be an important, but not all encompassing factor. The Brits and the Germans and probably the Dutch are products of nationally funded programs. The athletes can afford in general to concentrate on their training as well as on bringing along promising young horses at a sensible pace. In the States, riders are so busy working to make ends meet that by necessity, their focus is split. Instead of enjoying the luxury of totally concentrating on their horses, their days are spent promoting themselves, doing clinics and camps, teaching, putting together syndicates and turning over resale projects. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
Lest we think outside funding is the magic panacea however, I think it will first be necessary to face some painful questions. Are our riders hungry enough? Will our riders put Egos aside and come together to trust and follow one coordinated program? Are our riders good enough?
None of these are questions that anyone wants to hear spoken, but dealing with these doubts honestly is the only way we can hope to rebuild our eventing program.