Olympic Eventing cross-country produced spectacular sport in Greenwich Park today where at the end of an afternoon filled with thrills, spills, and excitement, team Germany maintained the advantage. It’s only a slight one, as the host British side lies just over five penalty points behind in silver medal position going into tomorrow’s final jumping phase, while Sweden is just over a single point further in behind.
First-day dressage joint-leaders – Germany's Ingrid Klimke and Sweden's Sara Algotsson Ostholt – returned to the top of the individual leaderboard when Japan’s Yoshiaki Oiwa was one of 10 fallers on the track over which 15 of the 70 starters were eliminated. Should Klimke and Algotsson Ostholt hold firm tomorrow, the German may live to regret her speedy and seamless tour of the track with Butts Abraxxas, as it her Swedish rival who crossed the finlsh-line closest to the optimum time with her mare, Wega, meaning the Swede would finish ahead.
The pendulum swung wildly throughout the day, with Britain and Germany playing cat-and-mouse for pole position, while the Swedes rose to third when the Australians lost their grip on overnight runner-up spot. The Aussies were severely hampered by elimination for both Sam Griffiths (Happy Times) who fell on the flat between fences, and anchorman Clayton Fredericks who hit the turf when Bendigo lost his landing gear after the big drop at fence 20. When Lucinda Fredericks and Flying Finish had a run-out at the narrow upbank exit from the second water complex, the Australians completed in sixth place and start tomorrow 17 points behind team USA in fifth.
Andrew Nicholson (Nereo) produced one of nine rounds within the optimum time, which rocketed him from 21st to ninth placing going into the final day. And it is really tight at the top of the individual leaderboard – the joint-leaders just 0.2 ahead of the masterful Kiwi Mark Todd who nursed the inexperienced Campino home with just 0.40 time penalties to maintain the hold on bronze medal position he established at the end of yesterday’s dressage phase.
Michael Jung’s clean sheet with Sam was pivotal to German dominance today, and this partnership lies individually fourth ahead of Great Britain’s Tina Cook (Miners Frolic) and Mary King (Imperial Cavalier), who hold fifth and sixth places respectively, while Sweden’s Ludvig Svennerstal really put himself on the map when adding just 0.4 for time to slot into seventh with Shamwari, just ahead of Germany’s Sandra Auffarth (Opgun Louvo) in eighth.
If it was a pressure-filled day for all the riders, it was almost unbearably so for the British who had to contend with the wild enthusiasm of the vast majority of the 50,000 spectators who poured into the Olympic equestrian venue from early this morning. They couldn't contain themselves as their super-stars appeared, and there was an unbelievable wall of sound from thousands of supporters as each of them traveled around the course. Pathfinder Nicola Wilson, got them off to the perfect start with a fault-free run from Opposition Buzz that broke the beam in 9.52 minutes, demonstrating that the clear produced by Australia’s first-line rider Chris Burton (HP Leilani), second to take on the 29-fence track, was very possible indeed.
Mary King’s Imperial Cavalier is a strong horse at the best of times, and the noise from the behind the ropes just spurred him on over the early part of the track. He was running so freely that her compulsory stop after the second water complex, due to fence damage incurred when Japan’s Takayuki Yumira and Latina tipped up at the Cricket Ball Basket (fence 23), may well have been opportune. “I was very nervous of the crowd," King said after resuming her ride to complete with just 1.2 time penalties, “but it was wonderful to have such support behind us.”
If the crowds had been noisy during King’s round, it paled into insignificance compared to the reception given to Zara Phillips and High Kingdom. Others might have buckled under the strain, but the former World and European champion, whose supporters club included her mother, the Princess Royal (Princess Anne), and cousins Princes William and Harry along with the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, just cracked on to defy her occasional critics and produce the ride of her life – a clear round at the Olympic Games which would count towards the team score at the end of the day despite the loss of a front shoe.
It was the double-clears from Klimke and Jung that sealed the lead for the Germans. Peter Thomsen (Barny) added 5.2 time penalties to his scoreline, Dirk Schrade (King Artus) picked up 10.8 of the same, but Sandra Auffarth collected just 4.8 with Opgun Louvo to leave the Germans on a tally of 124.70.
Niklas Lindback helped clinched that third spot for Sweden but was lucky to get away with bad stride at the last where Mr Pooh was managed to stay on his feet after hitting it hard. The slippery ground played a significant role today, penalising two riders who fell on the flat and slowing others down.
The award for the most sensational dismount of the day might well have gone to Holland’s Elaine Pen who, going sixth from last, was unseated at the middle element of second water and hung on for her life with the crowd roaring her encouragement before gravity won out. Bitterly disappointed to drop into the shallow water, she turned to her mare Vira to give her an apologetic pat and a hug.
As the dust settled tonight, Sweden’s Sara Algotsson Ostholt said she was “very happy” to be in joint-first place individually and that “we have a good team and if we have a good day tomorrow then we have a real chance.” As Mark Todd pointed out “it’s very, very close and, as we’ve known since long before these Games, there are so many good horses and riders, it will be very close tomorrow."
Course designer, Sue Benson, said “it was a marvelous day, with lovely pictures of our sport being beamed all around the world, and the horses finished extremely well due to some wonderful riding.”
The fate of the Eventing medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games are still very much hanging in the balance.