August 10, 2012 — The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport. The London Games are the pinnacle of Olympics.
There never has been anything like these two weeks-plus of athletic excitement and beauty, staged so artfully in one of the world’s greatest cities. The performances, the records broken, the unforgettable moments in the stadiums have been fabulous. But overshadowing all of that, the way a nation got behind them was inspiring.
The Olympics are supposed to be a time of good will; in ancient Greece, wars stopped during the Games, and I got that sense of harmony here.
Never once did I hear a cross comment, even when there was cause. People involved with the Games were unfailingly polite, helpful and caring when I encountered them. And when I say people involved with the Games, I don’t just mean the legions of wonderful volunteer “Games Makers” or organizers. The British sense of pride in the Olympics was pervasive throughout the population. Everyone I met, whether a shopkeeper, a taxi driver or someone from whom I asked directions on the street (there were a lot of those) behaved as if they were playing a part in putting on the Games. And of course, they were. The only other Games I attended where I got a similar feeling of such community was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but London carried it to new heights.
In terms of horse sport, this was the ultimate. I am speaking as a veteran of nine Olympics, six World Equestrian Games, five world championships and 20 World Cup finals. I’ve never seen anything like it. The showcase of Greenwich Park shone beyond words in its beauty and suitability to deliver on the world stage. And this was horse sport at its best, particularly in dressage, as scores continue to rise in reflection of both technical and artistic elegance.
The fact that billions of people watched the Games on TV or streaming video undoubtedly will help the popularity of horse sports, especially since the pictures that came across were for the most part so lovely.
There was, as I’m sure you know, great controversy over the use of Greenwich Park in the city, as opposed to, say, Windsor, the scene of other equestrian competitions not too far out of town. The neighbors of the oldest royal park (dating back to the 15th century) were miffed at not being able to use it the way they normally did, while environmentalists were concerned that flora and fauna would be harmed. (The rather tame squirrels, however, were thrilled about having thousands more people to feed them.)
Holding the equestrian disciplines in the city, though it may well have cost 10 times the 6 million British pounds (no exact figures are available) originally estimated to put them on was well worth the price in terms of access to the sports and their image. Of course, there are people worried about the cost of the Games, and those who said their businesses didn’t get the promised boom as a result of having them, but that will always be the case with projects of this size.
The shame of it is that the fantastic arena, raised above ground so as not to damage anything (but how did the grass like being deprived of sunlight for more than a year?) will be dismantled after the pentathlon this weekend. The view of the Queen’s House and beyond to the city skyline is unlikely ever to be rivaled. All beauty is fleeting, but it is sad to think this now will exist only in our photos and memories.
I’ve been going back over all that I told you during the Games, and the things on which I didn’t comment, because reports by definition can’t involve endless reams of copy.
Here are some random thoughts:
The only downers at the Olympics as far as I could see were ticketing problems and the mascots. I can’t speak authoritatively about the tickets (all media members go in on special passes that remain around our necks for the duration) but I can voice my opinion about the nightmare-inducing mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville.
These “digital age” one-eyed mini-monsters with cab lights on their heads must have been the spawn of Izzy, otherwise known as Whatizit, the blue amorphous creature that was the mascot of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. While there was widespread criticism of Izzy, at least he had two eyes.
Why not choose something cuddly as your symbol, such as Pride the Lion, that was part of a subset of British team souvenirs and promotional items?
There understandably had been great concern about security in London. Surface-to-air missiles were installed at a number of sites (always best to be prepared for the worst) and there was a scandal about the lack of readiness shown by the security firm that had the contract for the Games.
In stepped the military to fill the breach, and they were great. The soldiers who checked us through X-ray and bag search every morning were unfailingly polite and efficient, as well as friendly. Their professional demeanor was many levels above the private security guards we encountered. And they were reasonable. Ticketholders were not allowed to bring in bottles of water any bigger than 100 milliliters. We could bring in larger bottles, as long as we were willing to take a swig from them in front of the soldiers. Why can’t TSA learn from this? If someone refuses to drink their own water, you’re probably on your way to nabbing a terrorist.
There must have been a curse on North America at these Games. The Canadians probably had it the worst, with only one rider from their eventing team finishing the competition, the elimination of a dressage rider when his horse balked in the arena (how often do you see that happen at this level?) and the elimination of one of their show jumpers for hypersensitivity because of a small cut on his coronary band. The hypersensitivity issue really must be revisited to make it fairer for both horse and rider. With no drop score, however, the three Canadian show jumpers still managed to finish fifth, one place ahead of the U.S. and four ahead of Mexico.
In general, the U.S. had a better time than Canada in terms of drama, but not much. None of the teams were anywhere near the medals, and the highest-placed U.S. rider across the disciplines was World Cup show jumping champ Rich Fellers, eighth on Flexible.
The “Dressage is Number One” foam fingers were much in evidence at the individual dressage finals yesterday, courtesy of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. You remember the red fingers were part of the USEF’s quick-witted retort to Stephen Colbert’s mocking take on the sport and Ann Romney’s involvement with it. The Brits loved them and proudly sported them, even if they didn’t really understand their origins. Ann Romney was here for two days to watch Rafalca, the horse she owns with Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling. She is a real fan; she stayed all through the Grand Prix Special to see other horses besides her own.
I’ve explained how the British postal service is painting postboxes gold in gold medalists’ home towns. Carl Hester, a member of the British gold medal dressage team, is excited because there is only one post box on the Channel island of Sark, where he was born, so it certainly gets the spotlight.
Carl and his protege, Charlotte Dujardin, are among the great stories of these Games. While Charlotte said they bicker like an old married couple, they are great friends and were two-thirds of the history-making British gold medal team. What a shame their horses must be for sale post-Games.
Charlotte did the cause of safety a world of good by wearing a Charles Owen helmet (which she calls a “crash hat”) instead of a top hat. While there were very few helmets seen in the dressage here, she decided to break from tradition early this year because she had a fall and fractured her skull.
The double gold medalist noted she was lucky to have emerged from that accident without lasting effects, but says she feels “very comfortable and very safe,” in her helmet, noting you never know what’s going to happen, either in competition or a prize-giving (A jumper rider recently fell in a victory round, after he had taken off his hat to salute the crowd.)
So even more kudos to Charlotte, who believes someday soon there will be a rule change to require helmets. It can’t come soon enough.
The Brits, by the way, spent more time atop the podium than citizens of any other nation. They earned two team golds, one team silver (see how close I was to my prediction that they could sweep all three team golds?) an individual gold and an individual bronze.
The Germans, meanwhile, did best in eventing, with two golds and a bronze. Funny, it’s their least traditionally strong sport over the years, though they did win gold in 2008. They had four medals total, one less than the Brits. But the power paradigm is now different than it used to be, even than it was for the 2008 Olympics. More countries are involved and different countries are getting medals, which puts points in the universality column. The Saudis, for instance, who made their first impression on the Olympic show jumping scene with an individual bronze in 2000, this time won the team bronze behind Britain and the Netherlands, nations with a longtime tradition in the sport.
It was refreshing to see all the new faces who did well. It shows people that there is a future at the top of the sport.
In retrospect, now that I’ve finally been able to get seven hours of sleep, I loved covering this Olympics, even though I never got a chance to shop (my husband should be happy) and the only sightseeing I did was from the window of the media bus. And on that subject, the transport — often a problem at the Olympics — worked quite well. I did have to take two shuttles and a bus daily to get to the venue, with a round trip that often went beyond three hours, but I got there and back without a hassle.
The problem for me as a reporter involved the restrictions encountered at the Olympics, as opposed to every other event I cover. Contact with the athletes generally is limited to the “mixed zone,” where they appear after their ride.
Crammed into the zone, I was in a crowd with other journalists, jockeying for position in order to hear the comments and ask my questions. It’s pretty hard to get an exclusive at the Olympics as a result, and the athlete soundbytes that are a part of our other postcards could not be used here because they were only allowed for radio rights-holders.
Added to the difficulty are changes in where you can and can’t go, which usually occur during the first few days as you’re finding your way around. You think you’ve found a shortcut, and then a new steel barrier goes up. I felt like a mouse in a lab experiment, looking for the cheese as I raced to catch up with the action.
London has been all Olympics, all the time, during these few weeks. For some, it’s become a way of life. I loved it when a BBC host wearing a worried expression asked, “What on earth will we do when it’s all over?”
I guess they’ll go back to regular programming. As for me, I’ll catch up on my sleep.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on the Games. I’ve gotten writer’s cramp scribbling out all these reports, so I’m taking a break until Labor Day weekend, when I’ll send my next report from the Hampton Classic.