I left Rio the morning after show jumping ended, which meant I watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games from the comfort of my Florida home. The word “comfort” holds many, many new meanings post Rio.
For all the doubt and naysaying that went on before the Games by this and other media outlets, from August 5th – 20th, Brazil stood up to the world and proved it was capable of holding a successful and—yes—safe Games amid its own crumbling infrastructure.
As seen through the window of the Olympic bubble, which in my case was the literal window of an official media bus, these Olympics illustrated a vast separation that I’m still grappling with. Elite athletics on the inside, stark poverty on the outside. Along with its spectacular beauty, Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular set of social ills to address. But however flawed an endeavor it seemed to be, Brazil pulled off the Summer Olympics in brilliant fashion. For the sport of show jumping, Rio was a showcase of exceptional moments that displayed that passion of the world’s best horses and riders. After two and a half weeks in Rio during an emotional, exciting, and at times scary Olympic Games, these were the highs and lows that stood out:
They Were Ready
In the months leading up to the Games, I took it upon myself to ask every Brazilian person I met, ‘will Rio be ready for the Games?’ I’d seen the photos of the unfinished volleyball stadium on the beach, heard rumors about the new highway still under construction, and wondered aloud about the stabling that was just a concrete pad as late as April.
To a one, every Brazilian person had the same answer for me: ‘in Brazil, we do things at the last minute, but we will definitely be ready.’
And they were all correct. Deodoro National Equestrian Center rolled out the red carpet for the over 200 competing horses, with beautiful new stables featuring oversize stalls and plenty of room to hack, graze and walk around. The competition arena featured multiple warm up areas and the footing was flawless in the main arena. The groups that worked long hours to make the venue Olympic-worthy are owed a big tip of the hat; they ranged from the FEI stewards and stable management experts, the commanding officers of the Deodoro military base where the competition was held, to the many volunteers and staff that did everything from deliver large bags of carrots to check your credential at the security gate. From the bus drivers to the irreplaceable media center staff, every person I encountered was friendly, welcoming, and well-prepared.
The Comeback Kings
When Nick Skelton and Big Star were first to go in an Olympic jumpoff order of six, my heart sank a little bit. There wasn’t a person in Deodoro stadium who didn’t want to see them do well, but chances were that even if they did jump clear, their time wouldn’t hold up against the five incredible riders to follow.
As we all know by now, they did jump clear, their time did hold up, and when Eric Lamaze and Fine Lady had a shocking rail as last to go in the jumpoff, Big Star spooked along the rail of the warm up arena because so many people started running towards he and Skelton. I ran too, straight into the warmup where about 100 riders and their teams were amassing to give Skelton a hug, touch Big Star, and mainly stand about in a happy state of shock. In the middle of it all, Skelton put his hands on his hips, looked at his horse in a daze, and accepted the well wishes with tears and a smile. What else can be said about the man who would never ride again and the horse that had barely shown in the last three years? That moment said it all.
Two days prior, it was the French team’s turn to cry with joy when they won Team Gold. Truly against all odds, they grappled with several disasters among their ranks; their strongest rider Simon Delestre had to withdraw after his horse Ryan knocked a leg against the stall and suffered a hairline fracture of the hock. The French media cursed when they heard the news, certain that Team France was finished and permanently out of the running as a serious medal contender. The next day, on the first day of jumping, Pénélope Leprevost’s Flora de Mariposa showed signs of colic. She recovered, but in the first round of jumping, Leprevost fell off when the mare tripped on landing from a jump.
Leprevost was excluded from riding for an Individual, but she was still able to compete for the team, and she proceeded to jump clear in Round 2, and clear in the Team Final. In fact, the French were so brilliant in the Team Final that by the time Roger Yves Bost jumped a clear round, France had secured Olympic Team Gold with a dozen other riders still left to go. Their disbelief was palpable, and Philippe Rozier, who started the week as team alternate and ended it as a Gold Medalist, wept openly as he waited to greet Bosty at the ingate. To put a stamp on their win, Team France climbed the Olympic rings with a bottle of champagne, and, balancing from the highest ring, Leprevost tipped her head back and took a drink straight from the bottle. A successful rebound, indeed.
Ludger’s Swan Song
In the Team competition, the Bronze Medalists from Germany had to fight for it, going into a jumpoff for Bronze with Canada. With three clear jumpoff rounds they more than earned it, and the very next morning, anchor rider Ludger Beerbaum announced his impending retirement from the sport. While there were calls of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” this time, Beerbaum seems intent on stepping down from international sport. After more than 30 years at the top of the sport during a career that includes four Olympic Gold Medals from previous Games, over 130 Nations Cups appearances and countless other achievements, for Beebaum, the time was right to put an end to his era as a competitive international rider. He joked that it was time for his younger colleagues to take over, and confirmed that September’s Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona would be his final international championship.
For a while there, Team Brazil was strongly in medal contention; they entered the Team Final tied for first place on a scoresheet of clear rounds. Brazilian riders Doda De Miranda, Eduardo Menezes, Pedro Veniss and Stephan De Frietas Barcha were no doubt carried to their clear rounds in part by the deafening support of their fans who packed into Deodoro stadium for the show jumping. A Brazilian rider needed only to enter the arena to set off hysterical flag-waving, screaming and cheering that ricocheted around the massive semi-circle of spectator grandstands. And when one of those riders went clear, they brought the house down as if it were the deciding goal in overtime of a football match.
Brazil would finish 5th in Team competition, with its best-placed rider Doda De Miranda in 15th. But the fans cheered them on as champions until the very end, giving Brazilian riders a welcome they will never forget.
Four Blood Rule Disqualifications
I attend more show jumping competitions than most, and I’ve never reported on a Blood Rule disqualification, so I was as shocked as anyone else when the Olympic Games produced a total of four disqualifications due to Article 242.3.1 of the FEI Jumping Rules, better known as the Blood Rule.
The rule is straightforward, if any blood at all is found on the horse when it is checked by FEI stewards after its round, that horse and rider are immediately disqualified. Jur Vrieling, Cassio Rivetti, Nicola Philippaerts, and Stephan De Freitas Barcha were all found to be in violation.
Does the Olympics bring out an overuse of spur or emotion from riders who really, really, want that clear round, or was the FEI was extra zealous in its attention to upholding its priority number one for horse welfare? Either way, it wasn’t a good look for show jumping.
That Yelling Man
It was poor luck that a panicked spectator lost all self-control just as Pilar Lucrecia Cordon was approaching her first fence. It was the second day of jumping, and Cordon, of Spain, was looking to jump a much-needed clear round. But then a man appeared at the top of a spectator entrance and started screaming “Maria Isabel” at the top of his lungs. The crowed shushed him to no avail. And if you’re wondering if it’s possible for one person to shout loud enough for the 10,000 people in a stadium to hear, it is, and the panicked man proved it. He shouted and shouted throughout Cordon’s round. Was it sabotage? No, not at all. The man had arrived at Deodoro at 9am that morning, and shortly therafter lost track of his elderly mother. By 11:30am when Cordon went on course, he was in full panic mode. Later, he was reunited with his mother. But Cordon’s Olympic dream ended that day – she had the last two fences down due to lost concentration or a heavy dose of bad luck.
Teams of Three for Individual Medals
The rules are the rules, but that was little comfort to Team Switzerland, which had to make a tough, and some might say unfair, decision before the Individual Final. Only three riders from the same nation can take part in the Individual Olympic Final, and after all four riders from Team Switzerland finished on 9 faults, all of them qualifying among the top 35 Individuals, one was forced out of the final.
That unlucky rider was Janika Sprunger with Bonne Chance, who had put in strong rounds all week, and on the merits of her performance, deserved to jump for a chance at an individual medal. Chef d’equipe Andy Kistler selected Sprunger’s three teammates, and a disappointed Sprunger’s Olympics were over. Sprunger was diplomatic but stricken, writing on her Facebook page; “A very hard moment for us as we REALLY deserved a chance on Friday—but so do the others…!”
Bulletgate & the Military State
As equestrian photographers and journalists, we’re used to complaining about the coffee running out, or a lack of air conditioning in the press office. Never before and hopefully never again will the equestrian media have cause to report on rouge artillery fire piercing the media center. When this happened on the first day of equestrian competition, about 50 feet where I was sitting in Deodoro’s media tent, it was with a sense of wary disbelief; the
bullet didn’t so much as fire from a gun as it fell from the sky, ricocheting off a police blimp that flew above the equestrian center. Another bullet was found a few days later near the stables. Both were said to have come from nearby favelas. The locals were angry that the blimp had recording devices to monitor activity in the neighborhoods surrounding Deodoro. After a few security briefings, that was all we heard about it, and the number of soldiers swiftly increased. Tanks on the highway? They had those. A trip rope held by armed soldiers, and diversion traffic blocks for the media bus to navigate upon entering the facility? They had those too. While it gave our daily commute a strong sense of living in a military state, it’s those military that I have to thank for successfully preventing anything further from occurring.
From the armed sentries that stood high above the main road to Deodoro, their tanks and a one-time armed military escort that led our media bus down the highway one evening, to the crowd of soldiers bearing four foot-long rifles who searched our bags every day, this was one horse show commute that I won’t miss, and will never forget.
The View Through the Olympic Bubble
The Olympic Games really shouldn’t have been held in Brazil. And these Olympic Games could not have been held anywhere else in the world other than Brazil. Every day on the drive to and from the equestrian competition, I was a tourist to Brazil’s favelas and it wasn’t without a strong sense of guilt that I looked out the window of my protected
Olympic bus at crumbling neighborhoods sprayed with graffiti accusations of ethnic exclusion and social genocide. Next to the main media center, a favela had been flattened to make way for the parking lot where journalists boarded the media buses. Brazilian homes were destroyed and families displaced for my parking lot, and nothing else illustrated this country’s disparity more than that.
So no, money shouldn’t have been spent on the sparkling new swimming stadium or futuristic velodrome while millions of Brazilians dealt with poverty the likes of which most of us can’t imagine. The colorful Rio wrapping around chain link fences did little to keep out the everyday reality that Brazilians face. There were two versions of Rio: the one inside the fences, and the one outside.
Inside the sporting arena, that was as seamless as the organizers could have made it. But grand comebacks and falling bullets aside, the life outside the Olympic fence is what no visitor to Brazil should forget.