Monday, 30 July 2012

The strangely invisible team

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:


Partnership in their prime: Mary King feels she and Imperial Cavalier can challenge for a medal

Mary King and Imperial Cavalier; photograph by Getty Images.

Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz at the Dew Pond 2

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.

Chatsworth Horse trials 2011

William Fox-Pitt and Lionheart; photograph by Horse and Hound.

Tina Cook and Miners Frolic at the Water Complex 5

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:

30 July 1

30 July 2

And this one of course is just the official Queen of the World:

30 July 2-001

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.


  1. Very interested to read this. As an Aussie who has nothing to do with horses, I've always thought the eventing part of the Olympics was very 'British' and thought it would be a huge deal in your media. Sounds like perhaps it gets similar recognition to here; which of course ramps up if a medal looks imminent!

  2. Tania I disagree with your lovely Stepfather, I think people are interested, just look at the crowds in Greenwich! The Equestrian events are very popular. Eventing is not something that is easily accessible to Londoners and other city dwellers just as sailing is probably not accessible to countryside dwellers who don't live near a lake or the sea, I think that's all part of the Olympics whether people are watching TV coverage or are lucky enough to be there it's an opportunity to become interested in a new sport and find out about the competitors and what it's all about. The Greenwich venue is lovely, look at those views of London.

    Keeping everything crossed for Team GB.

  3. If it's a small consolation: on the breakfast show I work on for William Fox-Pitt's local radio station, almost the entire programme tomorrow will be dedicated to how he and his team got on today (as well as looking ahead to what they're doing tomorrow). We're very proud of him - and the rest of his team!

    (Lovely horse & dog pics as ever, by the way).

  4. Cate - you are so right. Your team is going great guns, by the way. Scorching round the cross country. So exciting.

  5. Dash - I so hope you are right. The crowds seem amazing and so wonderfully noisy. Perhaps it's just the metropolitan media.

    Rachel - that is BRILLIANT. Thank you so much for telling me. And so glad you like the pictures.

  6. I don't think it's poshness that puts people off, in fact I don't think people are put off at all, it's the editors and programmers at the BBC etc who do seem to be struggling to find the right tone and priorities for their coverage in all sorts of ways. I should have thought being a really good skier or yachtsperson could be regarded as being just as posh as being a good three day eventer, and yet the Winter Olympics are covered in full and the sailing is well in the public eye.

    Of course the royals are associated with TDE, and horsiness in general, be it racing, breeding, polo, hunting (in the past)or just liking riding out as exercise in the morning. Since most Royals can't sneeze without the press catching a cold I should have thought the media will be right there at the front of the queue gawking through their immense lenses for "our benefit" and tomorrow's front pages in case Zara falls off.

    I think you may have been being just a touch morning moochy or even ever-so-slightly paranoid, Dear Tanya! Riding is a huge participatory sport in the UK, and not everyone who enjoys it has acres at their disposal or even their own horse or pony. Take me...I invest £15 a week of my retirement income on a 30 minute riding lesson, and it's my main hobby at present. £60 pcm is 10% of my income. Nowt rich or posh about me, I can tellya! And even my husband, who is fundamentally suspicious of what he calls hay-burners "because they don't have hand-brakes," has been watching the TDE and hasn't turned over when I'm not in the room!

    Relax. Enjoy. Don't fret, pet.

    1. Goldenoldenlady - I don't THINK I'm being paranoid. Just genuinely astonished that such a thrilling sport, in which Britain excels, and holds genuine medal hopes, has so little coverage. And since I need to find a reason for everything, I rifled through all the possibles. Luckily, the riders are showing the media why they should sit up and take notice, by scorching round the course in glorious style.

    2. You seemed to have decided the lack of coverage may have been inverted snobbery, and I was assuring you that the love of horses and horsemanship doesn't belong in any one class. It may have been the metrocentricity of the media, possibly, that cause the lack of mentions of the TDE that upset you this morning. Certainly most newspapers are put together as though no-one is more than a short train-ride from the theatres, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants of London, with all their Must See This and Must Buy That recommendations, especially in the weekend papers and their magazines.

    3. Absolutely agree that riding demographic is marvellously mixed. Just suspect that some areas of the media may mistakenly write it off as a posh thing. (Sample tweet from just now: 'Nominate William Fox-Pitt for Upper Class Twit of the Year'. And Marina Hyde writes in The Guardian of the crowd sitting on shooting sticks and disapproving of her paper.)

    4. Some areas of the media are pandering to what they believe their audience wants to scoff at, without necessarily having their finger anywhere NEAR the pulse of the nation.

      BTW, we have a shooting stick in the boot of the car which was The Husband's grandfather's, although admittedly it doesn't get an airing very often. And we are very much no-one in particular, not in the least bit posh, just quite well educated and nicely mannered. Is that all one has to be to be condemned as elitist these days?

  7. I tried to find some Olympic equestrian on the tv the other day, what I found was 5 hours of cycling & 1 hour of equestrian - and that 1 hour was on a station I don't get.................. boo

    1. Nancy - it appears one has to hunt the equestrian down like Miss Marple on a case!

  8. and down here I am rooting for Mark Todd and Team New Zealand.

    1. Susan Heather - Mark Todd was MIGHTY today. Rode like an absolute titan. I also love the very chic old-fashioned breeches of the Kiwi team; lovely tan instead of vulgar white. Very smart.

  9. I think the majority of Brits have a blind spot as far as eventing is concerned. I can't remember how many times I have had to explain to otherwise intelligent,alert, cosmopolitan people, the difference between eventing and show-jumping. Not to mention justifying the existence of dressage. I think it's the horse itself which is the block. If people are unfamiliar with the horse then it takes a mighty leap of imagination to differentiate between the different equestrian disciplines.I am trying to be understanding, but actually I have to bite my tongue. How can ANYONE not be overcome by the bravery and drama we saw today?

  10. My 2 pence worth: I think that maybe the lack of coverage is because it's not as obviously visual as some of the other events ie - to use today as an example - the gymnastics and synchronised diving. Just my opinion.


  11. Heavens, and there I was envying the Brits for at least appreciating equestrian sports (which you do, more than in America). Here, sadly, it just seems that the farther we get away from the farm, the fewer children relate to horses. There just isn't enough contact and understanding.

    The Brits were amazing today, as were, especially, a couple of the Germans and Swedes. Incredible work. Felt so sorry for the young Japanese man who was the leader after dressage yesterday; his little mare was so nimble and talented. They were going well in cross country, and then it was over in an instant when he came out of the saddle. I know, that's what it's all about, but when an unheralded combination comes out of nowhere and flies with the eagles, you want them to be able to enjoy it longer.


    1. Apologies to the Japanese man (Yoshiaki Oiwa)'s "little mare." He's apparently a little gelding. ;-) Whatever, a good horse ...


  12. Last part of the TDE today. I expect you are yelling your head off and The Pidge is chasing her tail and barking in a frenzy. I think you might consider shouting GO TEAM GEE-GEE-BEE! as surely very appropriate little joke for an equestrian event.

  13. Well done, Brits - team silver, my most heart-felt congratulations! Now Mary King has got to work her mojo and go for individual goal as she deserves it the most! Precious little work or else done today...
    You have to watch this, Tania; if for nothing else for the cinematic value - I will spam the comments with it until you write you did :) But I'm sure you will love it.

  14. Pavlov's Cat1 August 2012 at 14:23

    I was horse obsessed as a teenager and equestrian events seemed to be everywhere then and nowhere now but I can't tell whether that's me looking for them then and not now. I did see a blog post contemplating whether the lack of Olympic coverage for equestrian events had anything to do with them being events where women compete alongside men, and therefore not proper sports because how else could women be just as good at them. I'm not sure what I think of that but it was an interesting point. I think there's just too much of the Olympics at once to show all of the best of it and anyone's choice is going to sit badly with someone. I keep finding myself watching one event on tv and one on my computer and still thinking there's something else I wish I could be watching as well.


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