Olympic blog: horses are still horses and media judgement calls

  • Four days on from Britain’s eventing team silver, the dust has settled a little for me. I’ve worked on some non-Olympic pages for Horse & Hound and I’m starting to get into the non-equestrian Olympic sports.

    It’s back to normal for riders too – I see on twitter that William Fox-Pitt is at Purston Manor today and Aussie Clayton Fredericks is heading off to Malmo, Sweden, for their World Cup event.

    Watching the Olympic dressage and showjumping on TV over the past few days, I’ve been struck by an obvious fact which it’s easy for us all to forget. Horses are still horses. Sounds silly, but these Olympic equine athletes are so well trained, so primed, so close – in the nicest possible way – to being machines, that sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact they all have a brain of their own. And that they don’t know this is an Olympics, they don’t even know what the Olympics is, and they have no idea what rests on them.

    On Thursday, Canadian dressage rider David Marcus’s Chevri’s Capital became upset in the arena and was eliminated for resisting for too long. In seconds, the Canadian team’s hopes of any kind of result were over, because in dressage all three scores count – a fact which frightens me with horses’ propensity to get injured and three clear days between the two tests which count for the team medals. Let’s not even think about that.

    And now today, we’ve already seen three showjumpers eliminated from the first round of their contest, a pair for two refusals and one for a fall. I’m a little hazy on the showjumping rules, but I understand this isn’t disastrous for their teams, but it certainly ain’t good.

    Each time something like this happens, I’m triply grateful for our eventing team silver. Because more than any other sport, anything can happen in horse sport and the margins were so fine in the eventing contest that a shiny medal could have turned to nothing if one horse had refused to play ball.

    On a related note – bear with me – I felt for BBC presenter Clare Balding last night, when she got some stick on twitter for not “appreciating” British swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s bronze in the 800m freestyle. Clare felt obliged to apologise on twitter and on telly for not getting the tone quite right after the race.

    I don’t think Clare had to do that. I’ve blogged before about the fact that riders’ reactions to their performance depend on their expectations and that’s true in every Olympic sport. Of course it was great for Rebecca to get a bronze, but it wouldn’t have been good reporting for Clare to pretend this was everything the swimmer had hoped for when she started favourite for gold.

    The media have a duty to put results into context to make coverage interesting and truthful – that means making it clear whether a bronze is an out-of-this-world performance or a slight disappointment.

    It’s a line we’ve had to tread in this week’s H&H and I hope we’ve got the balance right between celebrating the fantastic achievement of a British silver, but not ignoring the tinge of disappointment that it wasn’t a gold. We didn’t have much time to make those judgement calls going to press on Tuesday night, but I imagine in broadcasting it’s 100 times harder.

    Like everyone else, I’m now desperately hoping the Brits can give us the all-out delight of the team gold in the dressage. I’m lucky enough to have a ticket to go to Greenwich on Tuesday – and I just can’t wait.


    Full coverage of the Olympic eventing in the issue on sale now (dated 3 August). Reports on the Olympic dressage and showjumping team contests in the issue out FRIDAY, 10 August.

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