July 23, 2012--I've been watching a brilliant TV series called "Twenty Twelve" on BBC America. It's a mockumentary of how the London Olympic organizing committee operates. While it's described as "fiction, more or less," I think I'd be laughing more if I weren't going to be in the middle of the chaos that they depict and predict so well.
Example: There's an episode about a Brazilian delegation that spends the day on a bus, never making it to a meeting with the real London Olympics chairman, multi-gold medalist runner Sebastian Coe, as traffic and a hopelessly lost bus driver take them on an endless detour. But wasn't it just last week that a group of Australians went on a wandering four-hour bus journey from the airport to the athletes' village because the driver was clueless about the route? Yes, that was real life, but it's easy enough to get the two mixed up.
Another example: Twenty Twelve did a bit about planning civil aviation flight paths. Following a horrifying suggestion by the fellow portraying Graham Hitchins, the befuddled head of infrastructure, "Olympic Deliverance Commission" Executive Director Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville, who played Lord Grantham from "Downton Abbey") responds with his usual dry delivery: "If you want to make the security services really jumpy, surely the best way to do it is fly a succession of passenger aircraft from all over the world, one after the other, over the top of nuclear power stations." Fiction, right? But I'll be looking down as we get close to landing this week and wouldn't be surprised to see those nuclear towers right below me.
That's just the beginning of what I could be experiencing. Then there's the threat of an Iranian attack (with "panic rooms" being set up in the Olympic stadium to protect VIPs), roof snipers to take care of the bad guys, massive security problems and a planned strike by border personnel, the folks who run passport-check in desks at the airports (cleverly timed for my arrival).
"Let's Face the Music and Dance," the theme song for Twenty Twelve begins (appropriately) this way: "There may be trouble ahead...".
I'm sure there will be trouble ahead. Many things go wrong at the Olympics, and well beforehand also. One that sticks in lots of patriotic craws is having the U.S. team's Olympic uniforms made in China. Talk about an oversight. And the prices for those who would want to buy such an outfit are ridiculous. Why $750 for the men's blazer? My husband just bought a beautifully tailored sport coat at a reputable men's store for $98 earlier this month. Price inflation is, of course, part of the Olympic tradition. Like the Games tickets that cleverly go for $2,012?
This is the third time London has hosted the Olympics. The first was 1908; the second was supposed to be 1944, but with a war ongoing, it wasn't the best opportunity for a athletic festival. Hand it to the war-worn Brits, though. They were able to stage the 1948 Games. Equestrian sport at that one only lasted six days (this time it's more than twice as long) and I'm sure it was a relatively informal affair (I'll be talking to a veteran of that one when I get to London, so I'll bring you more details next week). Each renewal of the Games since 1984 in Los Angeles, when they went really commercial, has gotten more and more complex, restrictive and larger.
So to the people who bid me adieu with the advice, "Have fun," I reply informatively, "It's not fun" at least if you're a member of the herded and hounded media.
But it is an opportunity to see the best of the best in action, for which I'm excited and grateful, although U.S. eventer Sinead Halpin (with whom I spoke this morning) has been to the Greenwich Park venue and advises that anyone watching on TV or streaming video will have a better view than those who are there.
Still, there is something about actually being part of the Olympics, whether as ticket-holder, journalist or participant. For horse sports, there is no higher visibility. It's so tough to make the team, though. Consider Sinead's roller coaster ride (and we're not talking about the time she spends in the saddle on Manoir de Carneville).
She was on the "A" training list since last year, but got dropped down to alphabetically ranked alternate when the team was announced. Tate, as her Frenchbred chestnut is known, had a nosebleed following cross-country at the final outing, where her dressage wasn't stellar. But now the bleeding situation has been resolved with use of a nebulizer, she's focused and has been elevated to first alternate. If there is a problem (and no one wants this, especially Sinead) involving Mr. Medicott (Karen O'Connor,), Twizzel (Will Coleman) or Ringwood Magister (Tiana Coudray), Tate would be called on to fill in. (Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton, the other two team members, have their own back-up horses).
Last minute substitutions do happen; just last week, the Australian team's Shane Rose had to drop out because his horse, Taurus, had an injury, so an alternate replaced him.
If Sinead doesn't join the team, however, she won't even have an Olympic ticket and plans to fly home after the eventing gets under way and settle into that good seat by the TV to watch.
In eventing, it will be interesting to see how horses handle the cross-country at London's oldest royal park, where the compact course may have 3-star-plus jumps but 4-star terrain, with two hill climbs to challenge fitness, and crowds pressing in on the narrow galloping lane to challenge composure. Those you can bet will be ready include Michael Jung of Germany, the world and European champion, riding the amazing Sam. If he wins, he will be the first to hold all three titles at the same time. His chief rivals likely are New Zealand's gritty Andrew Nicholson (Nereo) and Britain's world number one-ranked William Fox-Pitt, with the low-mileage Lionheart. My dark horse choice for an individual medal? It's a tie between Christoper Burton of Australia (HP Leilani) and former Australian Phillip Dutton of the U.S. team (Mystery Whisper). Don't forget, the individual medals are decided by a second show jumping round (because of a dopey International Olympic Committee rule that you can't get two medals for one performance, which makes it more tiring for the horses. Congratulations).
As for the team prizes, which 13 nations are contesting (nine other countries are fielding individuals), Germany will fiercely defend its 2008 championship; Britain has the home team advantage and New Zealand is going to be tough. My dark horse choice: USA.
Dressage, with 23 nations and 10 teams taking part, may well offer the most excitement of the Games. Can Germany score consecutive team gold medal number eight? It has a whole new cast of characters, no Isabell Werth, and no Totilas. That iconic black stallion's rider, Matthew Alexander Rath, has been ill with mononucleosis and was an early cancellation. The country may not need Toto; Helen Langehanenberg (Damon Hill) and Kristina Sprehe (Desperados) each could be in the running for an individual medal. But I'm betting no one gets by Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin (Valegro) for the gold. The Brits, the gold medal Europeans, could not only take the top prize (which I think they will, despite Germany's firepower), they have the potential (though it's against the odds) to sweep all the individual medals too, with Carl Hester (Uthopia) and Laura Bechtolsheimer (Mistral Hojris) filling out the squad. Anyway, it would be Britain's first Olympic dressage medal, so that's a big enough deal on its own. The Netherlands may figure in the medals, but three-time individual gold medalist and defending champ Anky van Grunsven with Salinero will be taking a back seat this time to world number one Adelinde Cornelissen (Parzival). Edward Gal, a sensation as Toto's former rider, is not as high-profile on the newcomer, Undercover.
My dark horse for an individual medal? The USA's Steffen Peters, who may be able to find another gear in Ravel and sweep by one of the more-mentioned competitors to secure an individual prize. Steffen was 0.05 percent ahead of Charlotte at the World Dressage Masters last January, but she has been working hard and increased the difficulty of her freestyle, so the WDM results aren't a good predictor.
As for the U.S., my dark horse team medal pick, the key may be consistency. With team medals being decided on a composite of the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special (rather than just the Grand Prix, as in the past) a door could open for the team than can produce its best performances twice. There will be heady competition, though, from Sweden, Denmark and Spain. Remember the days when it was just Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.? They're gone.
Of special interest: Adrienne Lyle is competing for the U.S. as an individual. Though a medal isn't in the cards, this talented rider will gain valuable experience with Wizard, who is owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas. The wonderful Brentina, ridden by Debbie McDonald also belonged to the Thomases. Debbie is, of course, training Adrienne, and they have brought Wizard along from scratch. If you tune in to her performances, watch his extended trot.
Show jumping is the largest of the Olympic equestrian disciplines, with 26 countries and 15 teams. Can the U.S. win its third team gold in a row? Why not, with World Cup champ Rich Fellers (Flexible), the unflappable Beezie Madden (Coral Reef Via Volo), the always competitive McLain Ward (Antares F) and teen sensation Reed Kessler (Cylana) on board?
On the other hand, when I chatted with Great Britain's Nick Skelton in January during the Florida circuit, a light bulb went off and I said to him, "You know, Britain could win all three team golds at the Olympics." He looked at me in his cryptic way and simply said, "Early days yet," so I don't know if he thought I was crazy. But the days are no longer early and it's certainly short odds for the Brits' dressage and eventing teams to top the charts. They are, admittedly, much longer for show jumping. Even so, my dark horse team is Great Britain. The USA's chief rivals for the top prize include Switzerland, Germany and I never count out the French. Saudi Arabia has spent a fortune on horses, and that could pay off in a medal.
Individually, I think Nick has the strongest shot at gold with the aptly named Big Star, but Rich could be in the individual medals along with Beezie. Then there's world number one Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden (Casall), the individual silver medalist last time out; France's Kevin Staut (Silvana) and Switzerland's Pius Schwizer (Carlina) or Steve Guerdat (Nino de Buissonnets). Mydark horse is any of the last four.
Of special interest: Ireland's Denis Lynch was dropped as an Olympic contender after his horse tested positive for hypersensitivity at Aachen. This in the wake of his 2008 Olympic disqualification for a banned substance. He was replaced by (wait for it) Cian O'Connor (Blue Loyd), who lost his 2004 individual gold medal in a huge scandal when his mount, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for a forbidden substance and a drama ensued involving stolen papers and a missing "B" sample.
So let's see how it plays out, chaos and all. I'll be sending you postcards daily from London, starting Friday.