As a nation of animal lovers, it would have been fitting for Great Britain to win its first gold medal in equestrian eventing. But it was not to be. The 5-member British team, of which the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips is a member, lost out to defending champions Germany and claimed silver in a closely fought competition that stretched over four days and three disciplines: dressage, cross-country and showjumping.
The crowds in the Greenwich Park arena cheered wildly as the British eventing team bowed to receive their silver medals. Yet alongside a series of other British near-misses and disappointments, the 2nd place finish leaves the Olympic host country four days into the Games without a gold medal.
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It was a classic English summer day — cold and drizzling — when the British eventing team came agonizingly close to clinching the top spot. In the stadium, 23,000 excited spectators peered down at the British-themed fences celebrating Abbey Road, Nelson’s Column, Stonehenge and the prime minister’s residence No. 10 Downing Street. Rails span each fence at heights of up to 4 feet — knocking one down or taking too long to complete the eleven jumps costs a team points, and perhaps a medal.
The pressure was on, then, for 31-year-old Zara Phillips, who has played down her royal connections through the competition. Her mother, Princess Anne — a fellow eventer who rode in the 1976 Montreal Olympics — watched alongside Princes William and Harry, the Duchess of Cambridge and other members of the royal family. Yet it was perhaps to her teammates and country that she had the most to prove; Phillips was the last to be selected for the British team, with doubts circulating in the British media over whether she was up to the task. During the cross-country portion of the competition, she seemed to obliterate those concerns with a blistering cross-country ride that tore off two of her horse High Kingdom’s shoes. Her quick finish put her amongst the nine riders out of 59 that finished the course with no time penalties.
Yet Phillips’ performance in show jumping could not match her ride yesterday. The crowd, which remained silent during her test, erupted into applause when she finished, with British supporters stamping their feet on the stands. Yet it was a noise of solidarity rather than celebration: Phillips had knocked down a rail on the second fence — a Queen Victoria themed-jump — and finished the course over time, incurring 7 penalty points. If Phillips had ridden a clear round, it later emerged, Great Britain would have claimed the gold. After her round, Phillips spoke about her mistake. “You so want to stab yourself, but you’ve got to get on with it because you’ve got to ride for your team,” she said, adding that it was her fault, rather than her horse’s. “He couldn’t get out of the situation I put him in.” Despite perfect later rounds by her teammates William Fox-Pitt on Lionheart and Mary King on Imperial Cavalier, in the end, the Brits could not catch the Germans, led by world number one Michael Jung.
But if the weather was terribly English, so too were the home supporters, who watched with rapt attention, clapped politely for all the competitors, and refused to say a word against their own team — or the team that beat them. “Of course we’re devastated, but never mind,” said Londoner Andrea Williams, who had come with her 6-year-old daughter Eve to watch the show jumping. “Eve says we can win next time.”
Two supporters huddled under a Union Jack for warmth in the stands — Caroline Leddy and her elderly mother, June Horricks —had traveled from Somerset in southwest England to watch the eventing team’s final day. They were similarly forgiving. “They all tried hard,” said Horricks, noting that, as royalists, their favorite team member is Phillips. “Not that the others aren’t great sportsmen too,” added her daughter.
Outside the stadium, fans were overwhelmingly positive. Barrister and ex-horsewoman Denise McFarland said “the day would be fantastic without Great Britain winning any medals,” but that the silver was the “icing on the cake.” Her husband, ex-Royal Air Force officer Ian Wilcock took a more sardonic view. “It’s always the Germans, isn’t it?” he said with a chuckle. “We understand losing to the Germans.” As for Phillips, her position as a royal earned their compassion. “She been fantastic, very professional,” said McFarland. “Everyone’s nervous with their family looking on.”