Today my rant is pony-shaped.
If you’re even a casual consumer of media, you’ll have seen the almighty cock-ups by both The Mirror and The Daily Express yesterday, incorrectly labelling the Dutch dressage team as the gold medal-winning Brits. I appreciate that not everyone was following the team dressage final as obsessively as I was, and not everyone would be able to pick Laura Bechtolsheimer out of a line-up. But I don’t think it’s too much to expect of my national journalists to be able to tell the difference between a home team dressed in smart navy blue, and one COVERED in orange; one with whacking gold medals round their necks, and one sporting bronze.
There’s a plethora of sports at the Olympics that no one’s heard of before, all of which seem at first glance to be a little baffling, if not downright bizarre. Who but the most enthusiastic cyclist had before heard of keirin – the closest a human being comes to the experience of being a greyhound?
And yet it’s equestrianism which seems to be the comedy sport of choice at the 2012 Games, that’s borne the brunt of the jokes, the snide comments, the constant sniping that undermines a sport that, in actuality, is brutally challenging.
In an early round of the men’s gymnastics, I was furious to hear the commentators marvel at what the men were doing, and then go on to say that it wasn’t “just sitting on horses.” I bet that commentator has never been near a horse. Because anyone who has knows full well that – unless you’re four years old and have been plonked for the first time in your life onto a docile, aged, riding school pony – there is no such thing as “just sitting” on horses, and when it comes to the very highest levels of equestrian competition, the notion is laughable. The flurry of tweets saying that “horse dancing” isn’t a sport imply much the same.
In dressage, you’re sitting astride a half-ton beast with a mind of its own, asking it to perform movements that it wouldn’t naturally have cause to do, with nothing more than the way you’re sitting, and the signals you give it with your arms and legs. Sometimes, you have to ask your horse to perform these movements to music, in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. There’s no “just sitting” involved. And that’s before we get to showjumping and eventing, where there are long courses of huge jumps to get over inside a testing time limit.
|A rider taking the bank during the cross country phase of the Olympic eventing. Anyone think this is the same as lounging on the sofa? (Pic beautifully taken by, and shamelessly stolen from, Best Mate)|
And that’s just one of the ridiculously ill-informed snipes made at the sport. Others have included that it’s just for the rich and elite, which isn’t true. Of course having access to financial resources makes getting into the sport easier – but I’d argue that’s the same for rowing, sailing, cycling: anything where you need expensive pieces of kit to be able to get involved.
Then there’s the lack of respect shown to the riders who, contrary to apparently popular belief, are committed athletes. Two of the British team have previously broken their necks, and are still riding at the highest levels. And yet the press is far more interested in their relations. At a recent press conference, photographers desperate to get a picture of Zara Phillips, asked “the bloke” to stand in the middle: that “bloke” was William Fox-Pitt – the three-times world eventing number 1 (a position he currently holds), nine-times British number 1, and four-time Olympian with two Olympic silvers and a bronze. I can’t begin to imagine that Sir Chris Hoy would be referred to as “that bloke” in a similar situation somehow.
And it’s the same for the fans: Marina Hyde wrote a particularly chippy piece in the Guardian after the eventing on the attendance of the ‘country crowd’, with the ‘booming voices’ of an audience that was ‘more-than-usually expert’. I was unaware that fans particularly dedicated to their sport should be belittled for their attendance and support. Personally I think it would be a better use of time to celebrate the fact. When I went to Greenwich at the weekend to see the showjumping qualifiers, I was sat in front of a girl who can’t have been more than about eight or nine. As a Jordanian rider had three fences down, the little girl turned to her mother and gave a very grave critique, focusing on the dangers of taking an incorrect line. Surely, when we hear so much about the dangers of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, such enthusiasm for a sport is something to be cherished.
Our equestrian teams have now won medals in each Olympic discipline: we’ve had
two three golds and a silver so far, with the
individual dressage final still to come. Charlotte Dujardin holds gold medals for both team and individual events, having been riding at Grand Prix level for just 18 months. I’m not asking the media and
non-fans to love the sport, or follow it obsessively: just afford it the same
respect as you do all the others.