Today, a British team is performing at the Olympics. At the half-way point of their discipline, they are in bronze medal position. One member of the team is the world number one. We don’t have that many world champions, but we have one here.
We have only won two medals so far, a silver and a bronze. This team has the potential for collective and individual gold, if they get a little luck and things fall their way. You might think that this would be a cause for excitement and rejoicing and sporting fervour.
On the BBC Olympic website, this team is not mentioned. On the page titled ‘Day Three’s must-see moments’ there is diving, swimming, gymnastics and rowing. On the section ‘GB Teams in action’ there is basketball, handball, hockey, volleyball and water polo. There is absolutely no mention of this particular team, despite the fact they have performed out of their skins so far, in one of the most gruelling Olympic sports of all, and they have the potential to win something for dear old Blighty. In the sports round-up on this morning’s Today programme, their names were not spoken.
I refer, of course, to the British three-day-event team, who start the cross-country section today.
I’m afraid I got very, very grumpy about this. I started developing all kinds of furious conspiracy theories. It must be because it is to do with horses, and horses are seen as posh, and everyone hates posh people. The world champion is even called William Fox-Pitt, carrying the terrible no-no of a double-barrelled name. He really does not sound as if he scrabbled his way up from a council estate. (Perhaps he should have changed his name to William Pitt, but then everyone would have thought he was an 18th century prime minister and made Pitt the Younger jokes and asked if he were going to declare war on Napoleon.) It’s inverted snobbery at its crest and peak, I decided, which is intellectually lazy and generally very silly.
Then I wondered if it were an identity thing. Commentators talk a lot about being able to identify with public figures; they must be accessible and not too far removed from the common experience. Lofty fellows with grand names high up on shining horses are too far from the daily life of the woman on the Clapham omnibus. If that were the reason, then I thought that was pretty absurd, too. Rebecca Adlington and Tom Daley may come from backgrounds very much like the majority of usual Britons, but their talent and their dedication set them apart. Spending six hours a day in the pool is not something with which anyone but the most dedicated may identify.
Then, because I must have a damn explanation, I wondered if it were a town and country thing. Most people live in towns and cities now; the country is often viewed with some suspicion. The three-day-event is country to its fingertips, fatally connected with tweeds and gumboots and mud. It is not metropolitan and modern.
I went up for my Olympic breakfast with The Mother and the lovely Stepfather, filled with indignant theories. The Stepfather gave me my bacon, got out his glittering Occam’s Razor, and sliced cleanly through all my ranting. ‘People just aren’t very interested in it,’ he said.
The awful thing is that I think he might be right. It’s probably not any sociological prejudice or casual stereotyping; it’s just that it is a minority sport.
I think that is a bit sad. Badminton used to be a great national event; when I was a child, it was all over the BBC, and the mighty Lucinda Prior-Palmer was a household name and an object of heroine worship with me and my fellow schoolgirls. Now, despite William Fox-Pitt being the champion of the world, his name is virtually unknown.
I think it is a pity because one could argue that the three-day-event is the ultimate Olympic test. It involves that great mystery, the horse. You can train a horse and school a horse and use all the new technology available to you and get the greatest experts and ride eight hours a day (which is what these athletes do, rain or shine) and still, there is the glorious unpredictability of the equine mind. A horse may spook at the crowd in the middle of a dressage test, take exception to a strange water feature out on the cross-country course, become distracted by a bright umbrella in the show-jumping ring, and that is four year’s work up in smoke. The rider not only has to be talented and fit and nimble, but alive to the constant possibility of the unexpected.
It involves no fewer than three testing phases, all of which ask different things of horse and rider. In the dressage, there is control, suppleness, responsiveness. Then, out on the cross country course, there is the hard gallop over stretching, immovable fences, where one minute misjudgement can lead to crashing falls, broken limbs, utter disaster. I know of no other Olympic event where such physical jeopardy is taken quite for granted. Finally, there is the accuracy and speed required for the show-jumping phase. Having been faced with enormous, solid obstacles the day before, the horses are presented with poles that may come crashing down at the flick of a hoof.
It is also very beautiful. The sight of a fine, strong horse, rippling with muscle, coat gleaming with health, eye shining with intelligence and alertness, at one with a skilled rider, in the most demanding contest, is a very lovely one, even to the untrained eye. It is aesthetically pleasing, even if you do not know what the hell is going on.
It also requires buckets of courage, strength, stamina and dogged determination, over an extended period. I used to do a little bit of junior cross-country when I was young, and I knew I could never go on to the grown-up stuff, because it was too damn terrifying. It asks both equine and human to go the very limits of their physical capabilities.
You would think that this might be interesting, but apparently not. The good thing is that only I am cross about this. The riders will be far too busy walking the course and contemplating their great challenge to care what media websites have, or have not, to say. The horses, very luckily, do not read English, and care only about doing their job and getting a nice bran mash at the end of the day. Perhaps it is even a relief for the competitors not to have to suffer the glare of the public spotlight. Horse people are pretty straightforward and down to earth; preening for the cameras is not something that comes naturally to them.
Still, I would like them to get a bit of credit. The skill and guts that shall be on show today will be something to which a hat should be doffed. I shall be rooting for Mary King and William Fox-Pitt and Nicola Wilson and Tina Cook and Zara Phillips, in my Team GB way, but cross country is so demanding that it goes beyond national labels, so I’ll be cheering for every good rider and brave horse to get round, and give of their best. And the best will be very, very good indeed.
It’s a gloomy old day today, so I did not take the camera out. Here are some nice pictures of our great horses and riders instead, to get you in the Olympic mood:
Mary King and Imperial Cavalier; photograph by Getty Images.
Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz, by Henry Bucklow for Lazy Photography.
Zara Phillips and High Kingdom performing dressage yesterday; photograph by John MacDougall for AFP.
William Fox-Pitt and Lionheart; photograph by Horse and Hound.
Tina Cook and Miners Frolic; photograph by Henry Bucklow for Lazy Photography.
And I’m so very sorry, but I can’t resist including my own little Olympic champion. She wouldn’t know a flying change from a hole in the ground, but she gets my own personal gold medal, for sheer loveliness:
And this one of course is just the official Queen of the World:
The event has just started, as I finish typing this. To be fair to the dear old Beeb, they have just done a lovely package with Clare Balding interviewing the British team, and the cross country coverage has got off to an excellent start. The first American rider is motoring over a very trappy and undulating course, and the crowds are whooping and cheering their heads off. So perhaps my own personal heroes and heroines, horse and human both, are getting their moment in the sun after all.
Oh, and talking of Olympic champions, we may have one in the making here. The middle of the great-nieces, who is a very, very small person indeed, got onto Myfanwy the pony today for their first serious ride together, and it turns out that not only does she have a natural seat, but she can do a perfect sitting trot. She loves it so much that her entire face is wreathed in beaming smiles, smiles so big that they really need more face to express their full delight. The World Traveller and I count on our fingers. ‘What do you think?’ we say to each other. ‘Olympics 2024?’ We nod seriously. The pony nods her old grey head. The great-niece laughs out loud, from sheer pleasure.
PS. Forgive if there are typos and howlers; I have not time to do a serious proof-read, as I must now WATCH THE HORSES. Go, go, go Team GB.