Former Olympic team gold medallist, four-time Badminton winner and one of the world’s leading cross-country course-designers, Mark Phillips explains just how much of a team effort went into producing the fantastic results for the British eventers at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
I’M not sure I realised how difficult it was going to be watching an Olympic Games on TV on my couch at home and then having to write about it!
I’ve been lucky enough to go to 12 Olympic Games with various different hats on – as a rider winning medals, as a rider not finishing and coming home empty-handed, as reserve rider, coach and TV commentator. Every Games is different, every Games special in its own way, some more fun than others but all creating lifelong friendships.
Tokyo will be no different. Covid has put so many extra pressures and protocols in place. What we see on TV, with riders waving to empty stadiums, is a gloss that disguises everything that has gone on behind the scenes for weeks and months to help our riders cope with unprecedented heat and humidity, on the other side of the world, under Covid restrictions.
Huge credit must go to Chris Bartle and his coaching skills. However, I don’t believe he could have achieved it without Dickie Waygood and his untiring efforts to realise the dream of Olympic team gold that has eluded this country since Richard Meade, Bridget Parker, Mary Gordon-Watson and I lived those moments way back in Munich in 1972. Nobody deserves a medal more than Dickie – hopefully that might also come to fruition down the road!
Few will understand the contribution of William Fox-Pitt. His feedback from the test event two years ago was invaluable. He helped our riders understand the effects of heat and humidity after four minutes on the cross-country and how best to warm up in those conditions so horses could start as fresh and cool as possible.
Let nobody underestimate also the contribution of Ros Canter. As travelling reserve and reigning world champion, she had to be so disappointed not to run in Japan as Allstar B has been training better than ever. I know how difficult that role is – we owe her a massive thank you.
The riders, though, will come home with all the headlines. Oliver Townend has always been a big-time player on the big stage. I still can’t believe that he managed to be second, just two marks behind Michael Jung on Chipmunk FRH in the dressage.
By London 52’s standards, Laura Collett’s test was a little conservative, but still good enough to be just another two marks back. I was really hoping that this was not a case of Olympic nerves. I know that Laura would have been hoping for better.
Similarly, Tom McEwen was doing a fabulous test only to make mistakes on his flying change across the diagonal and a sloppy halt at the end. At this level, you make life difficult for yourself if you make those sorts of errors and still hope for a top-three finish.
Maybe all of this was the wake-up call they needed. Oliver could not have wanted to be the trailblazer around Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course. But once again he put on his “big boy pants” to make it look ridiculously easy.
Laura, too, was at the top of her game and seemed to cruise effortlessly around, while Tom put the disappointment of the day before behind him to produce what looked like a training round.
As a team, they were superb and fully deserved to go into showjumping with their four-fence cushion. No other country could get close to matching their performance across the country, making team gold almost a foregone conclusion but still a very special moment for all concerned and the country as a whole.
However, with Oliver and Laura both having a rail down in the first showjumping test, it made the round for the individual medals an absolute cliffhanger. Sadly, the magic touch left Oliver and Laura in the final round but Julia Krajewski, Tom McEwen and Andrew Hoy held their nerve to take the individual medals.
Some of us were maybe hoping for more medals, but don’t let any disappointment take away from an outstanding achievement in Tokyo.
- This exclusive column is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 5 August
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