Give that horse a nosebag. If it weren’t for a saucy mare called Rafalca, part-owned by Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, I may never have fallen under the spell of dressage, the sport often dubbed horse ballet, or witnessed one of the most thrilling finals of the Games. Romney stumbled on a trip to London on the eve of the Olympics, but Rafalca proved more sure-footed, performing well enough to make it through the dressage preliminary set-test round to the team finals.
At first I followed her progress because her patron’s opponents viewed her as a political liability, “a living, breathing, clippety-cloppeting, velvet-nosed and liquid-eyed avatar of Romney’s extreme wealth,” as I wrote in a ringside dispatch. And there was another political consideration. Rafalca never really threatened to medal, but the longer she stayed in competition, the longer Ann Romney might be expected to remain in London, potentially delaying the unveiling of her husband’s veep pick.
In the team finals on Aug. 7, Great Britain seized gold, the U.S. finished in 6th place and Rafalca scored too low to proceed to the last stage of the competition, the individual free style. With her departure, I might have been expected to switch my focus to a less esoteric sport, something involving man, or woman, pitted against the clock and the limits of the human body. But by then I was hooked. Because there are few more amazing sights than gorgeous horses grooving to the Black Eyed Peas or performing balletic moves in perfect syncopation with the Nutcracker Suite, and the individual finals on Aug. 9 delivered both. Plus there was a thrilling finale, as Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen, the penultimate competitor of the day, dislodged Britain’s Laura Bechtolsheimer from the top slot with an apparently unbeatable, and record-breaking, score.
Then came the last rider, another Briton, Charlotte Dujardin, who with Bechtolsheimer and Dujardin’s mentor Carl Hester had already won team gold. She coaxed her steed Valegro into an extraordinary routine to an insanely patriotic musical medley that included the theme tunes of iconic World War II movies, James Bond, Land of Hope and Glory and the bongs of Big Ben, and scooped the gold. Nosebags all round.
The Olympics is all about competition, and the fiercest competition of all is not between the sports stars who make the Games great but the politicians and sponsors and other organizations with vested interests duking it out to claim any success and sprinting like Usain Bolt to put distance between themselves and any snafus. The worst of these snafus occurred before the Games, with serial revelations about the G4S, the private company that was supposed to provide the lion’s share of Olympics security personnel.
The firm’s failure to recruit and train forced the deployment of British military to do most of that work. If the troops hadn’t done such a fantastic job, the politicians and other authorities who might have been expected to ensure G4S delivered would still be competing in what we might call the Blame Games. They’ve had a lucky escape, but memories linger, especially of the G4S corporate song that surfaced as the scandal unfolded. “G4S, protecting the world! G4S, so dreams can unfurl!” runs the chorus. The nightmare that unfurled marked London 2012’s darkest hour.