It’s here, finally, the often-controversial but long-awaited Rio Olympics.
Saturday morning the eventers start off the equestrian competition with their dressage phase, so it’s time to offer my thoughts on who will win the medals.
The least-predictable of the equestrian disciplines is eventing, because cross-country can throw a wrench into the efforts of the most accomplished horse/rider pairing. And while sometimes the Olympic cross-country is considered a touch soft (the better for those from less-advanced eventing countries to get around without major disasters) the fact that Frenchman Pierre Michelet is laying out the route means this course should be quite decisive.
Pierre was the designer for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, where his technical track and the hilly terrain took their toll. Deodoro, home of the equestrian competition in Rio, also has hills, and as in Normandy, a good number of riders doubtless will find they don’t know the answers to some of the designer’s questions.
The man with all the answers, however, should be defending individual titleist Michael Jung of Germany, a former world champion who will be aboard his most experienced mount, Sam FBW.
Michael is going for double individual gold. If he achieves it, that will be the first time it’s been done in the sport since 1988, when Mark Todd of New Zealand achieved it on Charisma.
At the same time, Michael is expected to lead the German team to gold. He will be backed up by current world champion Sandra Auffarth on Opgun Louvo and veteran Ingrid Klimke (her father was individual and team dressage gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and brought medals home from a bunch of other Games as well.) She will be on Hale-Bob Old.
Andreas Ostholt, the fourth member of the team, was replaced in the wake of So Is Et losing a shoe. Even though Andreas’ horse passed the jog, team officials didn’t want to take a chance. Julia Krajewski was chosen to take his spot with Samourai du Thot. But remember, only three scores count.
Even so, anything can happen, and there are other teams that have a good shot at the medals. Australia, New Zealand, fast-rising France and perhaps even Brazil, with the home country wind at this squad’s back.
Britain looks to be weaker than usual, though you can’t count out any squad that has William Fox-Pitt. Will he be the same William he was before a devastating accident last fall took him out of the game for months? We’ll see.
The U.S. has Olympic experience in Boyd Martin (Blackfoot Mystery) and especially Phillip Dutton (Mighty Nice), who earned Olympic team gold twice with the squad from his native Australia before becoming an American. Games newbies Lauren Kieffer (Veronica) and Clark Montgomery (Loughan Glen) should be well up to the task. Experts consider Clark the best chance the U.S. has for an individual medal, and the team shouldn’t be counted out of the medal race. But figure that after Germany, France and New Zealand have shorter odds to stand on the podium.
Dressage, in contrast to eventing, is the most predictable of the equestrian disciplines. As U.S. coach Robert Dover puts it, “regardless of whether it’s Germany, Rio or London, we’re still basically in a sandbox that’s exactly like the sandbox in Wellington or Aachen.”
Germany is incredibly strong, with numbers 1, 2 and 3 on the international ranking list offering an air of invincibility for its squad. Kristina Broring-Sprehe (Desperados FRH); Isabell Werth (Weiheigold OLD) and Dorothee Schneider (Showtime FRH) are unlikely to be nudged off the top step of the podium, even with a British team anchored by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, the record holders for the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle. Charlotte’s mentor and 2012 gold medal teammate, Carl Hester, will be right in there with Nip Tuck, and the two other members of that squad should support the stars admirably for silver.
The Dutch could be contenders for the bronze, but if there is a weak link among the potential team medalists, they’re it. And the U.S. has been working hard for a chance to ascend that podium with an impressive squad of Steffen Peters (Legolas), the only Olympic veteran; Laura Graves (Verdades), Allison Brock (Rosevelt) and Kasey Perry-Glass (Goerklintgaard’s Dublet). Sweden would seem most likely to be fifth.
Individually, Charlotte looks as if she will claim her second Olympic individual gold in what likely is Valegro’s last competition. Pick two of the Germans for the other individual placings.
Show jumping also may go to the Germans to make it an equestrian clean sweep for that nation (Christian Ahlmann is the world’s number one at the moment), but this actually is the USA’s chance for gold. Kent Farrington (Voyeur) and McLain Ward (HH Azur) are fourth and fifth in the world rankings, behind France’s Simon Delestre and Penelope Leprevost. Also on the U.S. team — the same one that took bronze at the 2014 WEG, with the exception of HH Azur — is Beezie Madden (Cortes C), individual bronze medalist at the WEG, and Lucy Davis, who has turned in fault-free round after fault-free round on Barron in the selection observation events.
The French, obviously, are a real threat, but the British–who took gold in London four years ago–have only one returning rider/horse combination, Nick Skelton on Big Star. The Dutch, world champions, can medal if they ride up to their 2014 level.
Teams less likely to figure, but still in with a chance are Sweden, Qatar, Ukraine and maybe Brazil, with former U.S. chef d’equipe George Morris coaching.
The 2012 individual gold medalist Steve Guerdat of Switzerland (also the 2015 World Cup champion) is trying for his double on Nino des Buissonnets.
What are the odds of all three individual gold medalists repeating their 2012 London success in Rio, with the same horses, yet. It’s an interesting and exciting possibility.
But the USA could have a show jumping spoiler in McLain, who’s ready for the biggest moment of his career.
If you saw the opening ceremonies, you’re geared up for the Games. Whether it’s via computer, tablet, phone or TV, be sure to follow the equestrians and cheer them on.