Great Britain win Gold in London
Great Britain triumphed in the equestrian equivalent of a penalty shootout to win their first gold for 60 years in Olympic team showjumping. Yes, really. It was that kind of afternoon at the magnificent arena in Greenwich Park, south-east London.
Against this most British of backdrops, Nick Skelton, Ben Maher, Scott Brash and Peter Charles — average age of 40 — won gold on £5million worth of horses to reclaim ownership of a sport that had been taken up by the rest of the world at Britain’s expense.
This former royal hunting ground had already seen Zara Phillips and the eventing team win a silver medal for Great Britain during London 2012, but that was nothing quite like this.
No 17: (left to right) Gold medalists Nick Skelton, Ben Maher, Scott Brash and Peter Charles
Medal winners: Great Britain celebrate their win with silver medallists The Netherlands' and bronze medallists Saudi Arabia
Skelton is 54 and has already come out of retirement once, having been advised to quit the sport after breaking his neck in two places. He had a hip replacement last year and has also had shoulder surgery and two knee operations, yet still has the chance of another medal in the individual event on Big Star, a Dutch-bred gelding valued at around £2m. ‘I have a problem walking about,’ he said, ‘but riding’s OK. It feels a lot better at the moment.
‘I have waited a long time for this — 54 years. It does make it sweeter. I was running out of time.’
Maher, 29, said: ‘I feel like I’m 50, I’ve aged 20 years today I think.’
Brolly good show: Fans watch on as Skelton competes at Greenwich Park
When Harry ruled
It was gripping, nerve-racking theatre — particularly during a winner-takes-all jump-off to decide the destination of the gold. And it was Great Britain who knocked out Holland as Charles, a 52-year-old who has represented Ireland at two Olympic Games, broken his spine and cracked three ribs, brought home the gold.
‘I think we did well with a mediocre bunch, actually,’ joked Skelton. ‘I’m really pleased for Pete. He has had a rough trip but he came good in the end.’
Dutch rider Gerco Schroder had sent the competition into extra time by clipping the second barrier in a row of three called Naval Signal Flags. A clear round and the gold would have belonged to Holland. Schroder’s horse, ironically enough, is called London.
So with Britain’s team tied with the Dutch after two rounds, the competition moved into sudden death. The course, which features jumps named after the Cutty Sark, Nelson’s Column and Greenwich Meantime, was altered and both teams went again, with the best three scores from each team counting towards their overall total.
Jump-off drama: Scott Brash (left) of Great Britain and Maikel Van Der Vleuten (right) of Holland
If Britain and Holland had still been level after that it would have gone to the team with the quickest collective time, so Skelton, Maher and Brash took care to make sure they were quicker than the three riders in orange jackets who followed.
Skelton achieved a clear round on Big Star and Maher also went clear on Tripple X. The first Dutch rider, Jur Vrieling on Bubalu, also cleared all the fences but the second competitor, Maikel van der Vleuten on Verdi, hit two, incurring eight penalty points.
Brash, the youngest member of the team at 26, hit only one barrier on his £2m horse Hello Sanctos, as did Marc Houtzager on Tamino.
Up stepped Charles, the most unlikely of Olympic heroes. His score from the previous day had not counted towards Britain’s total after his horse, Vindicat, got spooked by the loud, lively crowd.
His team-mates’ horses are revered and coveted the world over, but Charles’ ride is not considered anywhere near the same category.
High hopes: Ben Maher clears another fence
The Liverpool-born rider was also competing in his first Olympics for Britain after switching his allegiance from Ireland, whom he represented in 1992 and 1996.
Experience, however, told. As the arena lulled to a nervous hush, off Charles plodded around the jump-off course. He took 14 seconds longer than Skelton to complete it, which prolonged the agony. But then came wonderful, ecstatic release as Vindicat jumped over the final barrier and Charles punched the air — a gold medal winner.
‘I came in last the first day,’ he said. ‘He (Vindicat) just freaked out with the stamping of the feet and the clapping. He just did not know what to do. We got into a right mess. But he came back and was very nearly clear today. He was great in the jump-off.’
Picturesque: The venue, Greenwich Park
Britain had been second overnight. Another clean round from Skelton and four penalty points from second rider Maher saw them pass overnight leaders Saudi Arabia, who eventually won bronze. Another courageous — and clear — ride from Brash kept up the pressure on leaders Holland, who had recovered from a bad start by Vrieling. Charles hit a fence and incurred a time penalty in his final round but an error from Schroder was enough to secure a place in the jump-off.
Brash said: ‘I’d love to still be going in my 50s. To be riding as well as Nick and Pete would be amazing. I’ve learnt so much off them. I’ve had the odd fall but nothing serious. When I was 19 I had a hairline fracture of my skull but that was my worst one and nothing compared to these guys.
‘This is the best day of my life; the best day of all our lives. You can’t get a better day in your life with your home crowd behind you.’
A first British equestrian gold medal for 60 years after beating the Dutch in a penalty shoot-out. Fancy that.