James C Wofford

12/27/04

 

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Athens 2004

 

Aug. 9, 2004

            Greetings from Athens. As my time permits, I am going to keep a web log about my travels. I want to point out right away that any connection between my log and reality is accidental. Still, if it didn’t happen this way, it should have.

            I won’t bother with the results, since most of the world will be watching on simulcasts any way. This will be more in the way of a personal diary. Remember that guy who worked for Clinton, testified under oath, and then had his diary subpoenaed?  Asked to explain the discrepancy between his sworn testimony and his diary, he admitted to lying to his diary. That’s my kind of diary. (Clinton had that effect on people, didn’t he? “It depends on your definition of the word ‘diary’ “) Anyway, I just started this diary, and I’ve lost my train of thought already. Where was I? Oh, yeah, leaving for Athens.

My paranoia factor stays pretty high under normal circumstances, so you can imagine how badly I was rubber-necking by the time I got to Dulles today. I was on my way to Athens, which figures to be Mecca Central for Achmed and His Band of Merry Men, and I was a little spooked!

 It didn’t do my morale much good to board the plane with two guys with beards, turbans, several MacDonald bags, and B.O. that made my eyes water. They moved in behind me and got into a hissing contest. It is hard to eavesdrop on an argument in a language like Farsi or Pashto, as you don’t know what the cognates mean. Did he really say “Death falls from the skies on devil dogs”, or” Death smells better than the skin on these hot dogs?” It’s a good thing the air marshals took them away, ‘cause by the time they slapped the cuffs on most of the guys in my cabin were taped up, had their blocking assignments and were slapping high-5’s and saying stuff like “Let’s Roll”.

         The whole scene was a bit too much for me, but after the attendant hit me with the de-fibrillator paddles the second time, things started looking up. When she asked me if there was anything she could do, I pointed weakly at the drinks tray, and was rewarded with enough all-purpose brown to ensure a significant nap. Let me get back to you about that…whatever that was…lemme see, I wonder what happens if you pull this lever here? Ahhh, that’s better.

Aug 10, 2004

            “Welcome Home” the sign says as you walk down the concourse at the Athens airport. Makes you feel right at home, if you are into olive-drab and sub-machineguns. Every one here is in some kind of uniform. The soldiers and security forces are in their berets, carrying hand guns with one in the chamber, and the “Olympic Family” is in khakis and polo shirts. Every four years, Olympic Organizing Committees pay mega-bucks for people to design things that make everyone look equally like a dork. These shirts are several shades of blue on one arm, a white body in the middle (shows the pizza and coke stains better, doncha know), then going several shades of brown on the other arm.

            Can’t you just hear some prissy designer saying, “The dark blue is the Aegean, the brownish blue is the sewage effluent you see seeping from all those cruise ships in the harbor as you fly into the airport, the white is your face when you get my bill, and the browns are the noxious fumes from all the traffic on all the new freeways.” Works for me.

            Every country buys into this sort of thing. After one good look, you can pick out the German’s from a mile away (sort of a Zyklon-B mustard yellow), the Hungarians are in red gingham shirts and tasteful straw cowboy hats, and the Rooskies are in what can only be described as red-and-white Hawaiian. The desired result being that they look like Hawaiian dorks, I guess. I can hardly wait to see what I’m going to be wearing for the next 10 days.

            After the uniforms, the next thing you notice is how young and fit every one looks. The kids are ready, and they look it. There is such an incredible array of body types here…4’9” Filipino weight-lifters, bikers and runners, drawn like a wire, and one gorgeous blonde from the Russian women’s basketball team. How did I know that? Well, I guessed. I mean, how many 6’10” girls do you see wearing a red-and-white Hawaiian shirt?

Another thing that hits you right away is the variety of languages that are being spoken. Polyglot doesn’t begin to describe it. There is an impressive array of translators on duty all the time. Serbian, Croatian, Farsi, even Australian, they are all right here. I asked one of the Olympic Family ladies about getting my credentials, and she answered me in English, talked on her cell phone in Spanish, and flirted with one of the boys behind the counter in Greek…all at once. Pretty impressive. (Too bad she was giving me the wrong information.)

 Did I mention the part where the Olympics are always screwed up behind the scenes? Count on it. “oh, yes, you take this bus here for your credentials” Now you have to understand that your credentials are the Holy Grail, your Daddy’s credit card, and the keys to the T-bird, all wrapped into one. No credentials? Then the Olympics are not happening for you, my friend.

The way it works, you get off the plane with your “combi-card” (combination Olympic data form and Greek Immigration Visa). No combi-card? No problem, just take this bus to the Olympic Village. Ooops, you can’t use the Olympic bus if you don’t have credentials. But I can’t get to the Village to get my credentials if I don’t use the bus, because no taxis are allowed, because of security concerns. But you need your credentials to use the bus. But I don’t have my credentials…well, after 45 minutes of this, I got on the bus. I didn’t know it was the wrong bus yet. That came later.

            But I had already had my first intimation that despite everything you have read about how these games are not ready, they are going to happen, and happen pretty well. It is going to work because the Greeks want it to work, and they are unfailingly charming, and helpful. When a snafu (that’s Army talk for Situation Normal, All F****d Up) such as this develops, they simply help you game the system. “Oh, don’t worry, Mr.Warfurd, I weell distract ze bus driver and you jus’ get on, and no one weell notice”. That sort of thing.

        So I got on the bus, drove 45” and got off the bus and into a block long line to wait for my credentials. After a 2 hour wait, I finally got to a young lady at a computer terminal, who said, oh, dear, you are in the wrong credential center for that sort of pass. Now what, I asked? You must go to the Olympic Village on the bus. I mildly explained my bus problem, and a mischievous gleam came into her eyes. This was yet another illustration of why I think these Games are going to turn out pretty well. The Greeks have designed this perfect security cocoon, this vast intricate bureaucratic machine with all the attendant rules and regulations, and then they delight in showing you how to get around it. “Wait here”, my new best friend said. She came back with the Chief of ALL security for the Games.     ” Yah, just come with me, I’m going to a meeting now, they’ll let you in if you are with me” he said, and drove me to the Village. 

He told me about some of the stresses and strains that the system is under right now. 3000 athletes came into the Village today, and more on the way. To make me feel better, he told me that the U.S. Olympic Committee VP in charge of getting all the US athletes credentialed had quit 2 weeks ago, and the US system has crashed. “That’s probably causing you some problems” I perceptively mentioned. “You have no idea” he said. “Thanks for the ride” I said, and went inside to get my credentials.

I emerged 30 minutes later, grabbed a cab, and headed for the Equestrian venue at Marcopoulo (pronounced Mar-KOHP-olo). The highways and main venues look ready, but you don’t want to look down any of the side streets. I got the feeling they have been sweeping a lot of things under the rug, in order to get the main things ready to go.

 I wonder if we could get that judge in New York to let Martha Stewart do some early work release over here. You can never find a good feather duster when you need one, can you? Oh, by the way, Martha, if you are reading this, call 1-800-BUL-DYKE right away. (If there is a black bar through that last sentence, it means I did not get it past John Ashcroft and his Net-nannies!)

Anyway, I made it to the stables, checked on the horses (I’m coaching the Canadian team), and grabbed a meal at the athletes dining hall. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

 I am what I ate, and I’m afraid.

More tomorrow.   

 

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Aug 11, 2004

Greetings from Athens. They don’t have much need for a weather-babe on the local TV stations here at this time of year. About once a week they can just say “High’s about 90 today, and going down to 70 tonight. Some scattered high clouds after lunch.” Marcopoulo is only one mountain ridge away from the Aegean, so there is always a nice breeze, and if you can find some shade, it is pretty comfortable. The nice thing about traveling is that when you get there, you are in a different place. The climate around Athens is euphemistically described as “arid.” That means it is hot and dry, for those of you who have been watching too much Access Hollywood.

            What this means is that the architecture is almost exclusively stucco and red tile roof, with wide, covered verandas. Athens is built on a very human scale. Most of the buildings downtown are only a few stories high, and show a refreshing lack of chrome and glass. The feel is similar to the area inland from San Diego, sere and dry, with little in the way of shade trees. There are plenty of fig trees and grape arbors on the outskirts of Athens. You know you are in a third-world country when the directions say “go along this road until you come to the fig orchard with sheep and goats in it, and turn left.”

 The downtown streets are clean, and you don’t see any homeless vagrants around. Basically about 6 months ago, this giant voice came out of the sky and said “Yo, Nickolaides, get a job, or get out of Dodge!” The government was Socialist at the time, but even socialists get heartless when NBC is about to show up on your doorstep. The new Conservative government has naturally continued this policy. The only change being that they have increased the beatings during interrogation sessions.

            At about the same time, the prostitutes union here threatened to go on strike (I don’t care if you don’t believe me…look it up…everyone else is unionized, why not the ho’s?) but I noticed that concept fell off the screen quickly, so someone cut a deal somewhere. I would have loved to sit in on those negotiations between the politicians and the prostitutes…but I repeat myself.

What was the final clue to me that I was in a different country? I would have to say it was the sight of a whole octopus, shrink-wrapped and frozen, waiting in the freezer section of our local convenience store. No, now that you mention it, I haven’t seen any road-kill. These people will eat anything. Can’t anybody around here say “Angus”?

I was born and raised in Milford, Kansas, so when I go someplace like this my head is on a swivel. You are a loooooong way from Kansas, Jim-beau. I don’t want to say that Milford was the most backward place in the world, but when I was growing up there, if you walked down the street with a 40 lb sack of Calf Manna on your shoulder on Friday afternoon, you were gonna get a date.

But there is a rumor going around that if I hang around here long enough, an Olympic Event is going to break out, and I wouldn’t want to miss that. We haven’t talked about the equestrian facilities yet, and I want to do that before the competition starts, since I won’t have as much time later on. The actual facilities are state of the art. Built of tan stucco and red tile roofs, the center-aisle stables are designed in blocks of 4 stable buildings, around a large courtyard. There are 5 of these stable compounds, which is not much, when you figure that the new race track next door has 1800 stalls. The stalls are 12’X14’, with white washed stucco walls, high ceilings, and a fan in the wall at the back of each stall. There are 18 stalls in each building, plus equipment rooms, tack rooms, wash stalls, and an air conditioned office.

The exercise rings are a space age mixture of sand and shredded felt, so you feel like you are walking on springs when you walk across them. There are separate competition arenas for the Dressage and the Show Jumping. The main Dressage arena is on the same kind of sand as the training arenas and the main Show Jumping arena is turf, so the footing in the competition arenas should not be a problem.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are only two large working arenas, and four dressage training arenas for the entire cast of characters gathered here, so things are a bit claustrophobic. The estimate is for about 70 Eventing competitors, if everyone that is entered shows up. Since the hacking is extremely limited, it will be a challenge to keep the horses and riders from going stir crazy over the next few days.

And speaking of crazy, I have been going to these things for a while. My observation is that event riders react to stress the same way human beings do. Maybe more so. There is an interesting moment in every rider’s life in a situation like this. Sometime over the next couple of days every rider suddenly is going to look around and say to themselves, “Damn, I’m about to ride in the Olympics!”  That’s when the fun begins, because the stress level goes up exponentially from that point.

They all deal with it in different ways, mostly by drinking. The FEI controls the Olympic prohibited list for human medications and substances. Don’t think they didn’t know what they were doing when they left alcohol off that list. They know most of the competitors would test positive! There is a café at the gate into the stable area, where they serve booze about 18 hours a day. When I left last night, the Brit’s and the Irish were having a good old-fashioned stress reduction session, and most of the small talk in the security lines this morning was of the “I feel positively beastly, what about you?” variety.

My team is a little sneakier than some. They had a pretty good pipe-opener the night before I got here, based on the excellent logic that I might disapprove and so what I did not know couldn’t hurt me, plus they would have time to get well before we started seriously training. It does not bode well when the Irish and Canadian grooms are already planning their devilment for the competitor’s party. All I can say right now is it is gonna be expensive, it involves wheeled vehicles, somebody is going to break something, and the police are really going to be P.O’ed. I’ll keep you posted about this one. In the meantime, I figure if I play my cards right, I can be somewhere else with a glass of brown when the cops come around looking for a “Responsible Party”.

Speaking of which, booze has always played a big part where horse people are concerned. I didn’t mention the US team in the above list of miscreants solely because they just got here, and don’t have their credentials yet. Anyway, they probably won’t be able to top their stunt from the World Games two years ago. They missed their flight into Jerez, so had to take the train from Madrid. Stressed, hot, tired, dehydrated, no coach, no Chef d’Equipe, and with 2 weeks of per diem cash burning a hole in their pockets, well, what do YOU think happened? You got it…first class seats and champagne! Mucho champagne. Enough champagne that when you ask them about it, they all smile, and say “oh no, what you hear here, and what you say here, stays here, when you leave here!”

The US Chef d’Equipe,  Jim Wolf, met the train that night, took one look at them spilling off the steps of the train, with a couple of them in a fire-man’s carry , and dialed the US coach, Mark Phillips. “Hey, Mark, I think you had better reschedule the dressage training times tomorrow morning.” Phillips of course inquired further, and when being told of the circumstances, merely asked,”Did they bring me any?” It may be the 21st Century, but horse people haven’t changed much. 

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the effect of jet-lag. I’m going to shut this down for the night, stretch out , listen to the crepitations of my old joints, and think about how much fun I am having, and the event hasn’t even started yet. I’m kind of like the monkey making love to the porcupine…I don’t know how much more of this fun I can stand!

 

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August 12th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. One of the best things about the Olympics is that you see people you haven’t seen for a long time. You walk around the corner and bump into someone you last saw 4 or 8 years ago. The Olympics are a real gathering of the clan. As soon as the Olympics in Sydney were over, all the coaches and administrators from all of the horse world started planning and scheming to do as well, or better, in Athens. And they have all shown up here, to see how it comes out. Most of the riders are here now, and so one can start to get an idea of how teams look. The Brit’s look fabulous, as do the US horses. I am coaching the Canadians, so of course I think they are looking well. I watched Andrew Hoy, captain of the Australian team and the Silver medalist from Sydney, warm up yesterday, and he must be one of my picks to place here.(No, I’m not ready to stick my neck out yet…get back to me after the vet check on Saturday afternoon).

Pippa Funnel looks well, and her horse looks fit, but he would not be my choice to ride in a “short” format. Jean Tulure, the Gold medalist from the World games 2 years ago, looks fit, but he might have had to run his horse one too many times in an FEI-induced, stupid scramble to qualify for Athens.

Kim Severson and Winsome Adante walked around this morning looking like front page news, and Carrick, John Williams’ ride, has the same air of quiet confidence.

Blythe Tait and Andrew Nicholson are here for the Kiwi’s, and their horses seem well, but I have not seen them do any work yet. I’m sure those two will have their horses ready. I overheard a conversation between Jim Wolf, the US Chef d’Equipe, and Mark Todd, who is now the coach of the New Zealand team. The conversation went something like this:

Jim Wolf: “Morning, Toddy.”

Mark Todd(all 6’2” of himself shriveled down to about 5’9”,wearing his Maui Jim’s at 8:00 in the morning, looking like an albino prune, and very hung over ): “Uummmph.”

JW: “Toddy, now that you are coaching the Kiwi’s, I thought you’d be pacing yourself a little better.”

MT: “Uh,yeh, when I was riding, I trained on beer and cigarettes, and it worked for me then. No reason to change now.”

JW: “Ok, have a good day.”

MT: “Uummmph.”

When they say consistency is the hallmark of champions, I’m not sure that is what they mean. I’m almost afraid to tell that story, as some of my young tigers are going to think; well it works for Toddy, why not for me? All I can say is, the only reason anyone else ever had a chance when Toddy was around was if he had drunk himself legless the night before…kids, don’t try this in your living room.

I think the rider’s focus is going to start to tighten now. They have been wandering around all week, full of restless, undirected energy. But the draw for the order of go is tomorrow at noon, the opening ceremonies are tomorrow night, and after that they will be too busy to be nervous. They are wound up now, and their horses are as fit as they are going to be this year. All they need is for someone to aim them, and to pull the trigger.

I mentioned earlier that I have been going to these things for quite a while. One of my earliest memories is of sneaking into the secure area around the Olympic torch at the 1948 Olympics in London. What was I doing there? Well, boys will be boys. One way or another, I have been to 11 Olympics. But no matter how many of these things you come to, there is always a thrill, a sense of history about to be made. I remember the British rider, Ginny Holgate, telling me after her first Olympics in Los Angeles: “Jimmy, when I turned down the center line to start my dressage test, I have never felt such a sense of occasion!” A sense of occasion. What a wonderful expression, and so true. There is the feel of something historic in the air, and I am glad I am here to be a small part of it. I’m going to close for now with a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote:

“If thou are not versed in adventures, get thee aside and pray, whilst I engage these giants in combat.”

These kids are going to literally trust their horses with their lives this week. You might say a prayer for them. I know I am going to.

 

 

I had meant to close out my web log for the night, but thought I might share this with you. After I posted to my website late this afternoon, I went down to the corner store (aka Octopus R-us). There was a palpable buzz in the air, and an unusual amount of people out and about for this time of day. I overheard someone with Olympic credentials and a heavy Australian accent ask the young lady behind the counter what was going on. The Olympic torch is passing through soon, she explained.

Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes, but we can all clap as they go by.” And so it was that I stood on the curb and waved and clapped with the citizens of Marcopoulo as the torch bearer jogged steadily by. It came to me that our sport has gone through some wrenching changes over the past few years, and this was the reason. For a little while, our horses and riders will step out onto the world stage. For a little while, we will all be citizens of the world, and we can all clap and cheer as our heroes turn towards the entrance to the arena.

 

   

August 13th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. We only worked the horses this morning, because the opening ceremonies are this evening, and it takes a while for all the thousands of athletes to assemble. I told them I would be just as happy here in the air conditioning, serving as the emergency contact number for our team. Seeing as how they probably won’t get home ‘til after midnight, I thought that was a pretty good trade.

There is always something weird going on when the Olympics are involved; you just don’t know what it is going to be yet. If you get this many people in one place, I will guarantee that something strange, or weird, or unlucky is about to happen. For example, Sara Cutteridge has had to withdraw from the British team. Her horse broke down doing dressage the first morning she got here. She is out, and Mary King will ride in her place. The British usually have some catastrophe like this happen to them. In 2000, Rodney Powell, a team member that year, took his horse for a walk the first morning he was there, slipped, fell, and broke his ankle. End of story.

One of my team members had his horse spook this morning while he was leading it to our daily team jog. It slipped on the pavement, and fell heavily on his side. He may or may not be ok for the official vet exam tomorrow. We’ll just have to see how he feels. The moral of the story is don’t count your chickens, especially when the Olympics are concerned.

Anybody who follows horses knows what a heart breaking experience they can provide. August 13th, 1919, is the day that the incomparable Man O’War lost to a horse named “Upset.” Man O’War must have been some horse. He was facing the wrong way when they started (they did not use starting gates in those days) and was giving up a ton of weight, and only lost by a neck. The following year he won a match race against a good horse by 100 lengths! His long-time groom, Will Harbut, said he was “the mostest hoss that ever was”.

That might be so, but I saw Secretariat make his move going through the last turn in the Belmont, and leave the entire field behind. I saw Snowbound break down during the last round in 1968 in Mexico City, and jump the rest of the course on 3 legs and his heart, thus winning a Gold medal for Bill Steinkraus. Aherlich and Reiner Klimke did a test at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 that will always be my personal bench mark for dressage. Prince Panache and Karen O’Connor anchored the US event team in Sydney with the greatest display of moral and physical courage I have ever seen, on a day when anything less would have meant failure.

That may be why some of us keep coming back to these things. Every now and then a horse and rider will redefine excellence, and we treasure the memory and measure all that we see in the future by what we now know to be possible. That may be the answer to why we keep coming, the knowledge that something historic may happen, and we will be able to tell our fellow horse lovers that we were there the day that…

I have already mentioned how you run into people at the Olympics that you don’t see very often. I ran into Daddy Stibbe this morning. He is Eddy Stibbe’s father, and we are old friends. He is 82 now, mentally acute, but quite stooped, and he walks with a cane. There he was early this morning, slowly making his way towards the exercise arenas. As horses came by he would pause and  gaze at them with a soft, knowing, loving eye, still entranced by their power and beauty after a life time of watching them. I stood with him in a companionable silence for a moment, and then we just smiled at each other and went our appointed ways.  

So I think I had better go my appointed way, and leave the rest of the story to unfold. The official course walk is tomorrow morning, and the vet exam in the afternoon. They are working on the Dressage arena now, watering, dragging and rolling it, and preparing the stands for the first day of competition. All the years of preparation, all the heart breaks and triumphs, all the work and struggle are in the past now. All that remains is 4 days of competition in the heat of an Olympic summer here in Athens.

In his book SUPREME COMMAND, Eliot Cohen said “If you want to study the finest steel, best to search for the hottest furnace.”

They are about to turn the heat up here, so sit back, click on the TV and while you are at it, you might set the air conditioning a little cooler. We are about to study the finest steel that the horse world has to offer, in the ultimate crucible of sport…the Olympics.

 

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August 14th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. Let the Games begin! The riders got their ride times today, the Chef d’Equipes have determined their order of go within the teams, and everyone has at long last seen the course. I noticed that most of the riders’ small talk has subsided now, as the true import of their task has started to sink in. Have you ever seen the dog that caught the car? “Now that I’ve got it, what am I going to do with it?” Like that.

Everyone that presented their horse to the Ground Jury at the vet exam got through today. That doesn’t mean that there were no horses that weren’t a little rough around the edges. But there were none that were “Chicken-pickin’-corn-lame”, and I thought the Ground Jury got it about right. Most of the teams look well and very fit.

Ian Stark, the long-time captain of the British team, is now coaching the Brazilians. I have to remember to ask him what he is feeding those horses. Their team uniform is white slacks with a neon lime-green blazer. The entire team is tall, skinny, good looking, and young. Ian has these horses wound up like a cheap watch, so at one point in the proceedings, 3 out of 5 of his horses were misbehaving. One was standing on his hind legs and boxing like a kangaroo, one was letting fly with both back feet, and one was towing his jockey across the warm-up area. For a moment, I had a mental picture of lime pop-sickles being flung around the arena. Ian stepped in and squared things away, but not before the cognoscenti had a good laugh.

But that is all secondary to the main concern…the cross country course. The track of the course basically starts out up a hill for about a mile and a quarter, turns 180 degrees, and comes back down the same hill following a similar track on the way back down. Right away this tells you several things; the jumps are going to look small on the way up, because the designer can’t build a maximum fence; the track of the course is going to put a premium on fitness because the uphill part is so relentless; and finally, the same sort of jumps are going to be bigger and harder on the way back down, because the horses are starting to get tired. The jumps are beautifully designed and built, and should provide both a great spectacle for TV, and get the right result.

If I could only use two words to describe what the successful rider is going to display here those words would be “feel” and “concentration.” Unlike past Olympics, there is nothing here that these horses and riders have not seen before. Years ago it was not unheard of to turn a corner, look at the next obstacle, and say to your self “What the heck is that thing? I’ve never seen anything like it before. How am I going to ride that?”

 There is none of that here. There are several uphill bounces to a narrow jump, which is a standard question at the international level these days. However the jumps are a little bigger than usual, and the distances are just a trifle more forward and scopey. If you barf up any of these steps, you had better have another option in mind, because Plan “A” is no longer operational.

The first water jump is similar to the log-on-a-lump that we saw at the first water complex at Rolex this spring. It is much harder this time, because you now land on a grass slope, take 3 forward strides, jump a ramp with a 6’6” drop in to water, take three slightly forward strides across the water, and jump a boathouse corner with the red flag on the point. You land back in the water, and take 2 forward strides to an identical boathouse, with the white flag on the point. Both the houses are 3’9” and probably 5’6” where you jump them. Oh, did I mention that there is only about 4’ of overlap between the 2 corners? You will really have to thread the needle.

Still, I think the majority of the competitors will go the straight route here. In fact, I think the majority of the field will be clear up to the turn at the top of the hill. Then the real Olympics start! There are several very big jumps on the way back down the hill, including one maximum drop. There is a coffin that would not have been out of place in any Olympic course over the last 50 years…it’s that big! In addition, there are any number of places that a tired horse, or an inattentive rider, can have a refusal or a glance-off.

To turn in a clear round here, the rider is going to have to “feel” his horse completely. I mean the horse’s fitness, mental attitude, physical balance, the whole horse. Add to this that the design of the course is unusually demanding on the rider’s concentration, and things start to get really hard. Given time, and a fit horse, there is no fence out there that all the horses and riders could not jump successfully. But you are in a hurry and, after 5 minutes of galloping or so, you are on a tired horse. So add all this up and you come up with an Olympic course which is not the biggest I have ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the 1960 Olympics in Rome) but will take a lot of jumping. However, I am convinced it will produce a good result.

But the end result of my day is that I am going to cut this short, post it, and grab some sleep. As the week progresses, you might check back through here, as I will add to and embellish this web log as time permits.

 

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August 15th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. The first day of dressage is over, and there were no surprises in the placings so far. This phase has begun to assume more and more importance over the past few years, and the riders with a flair for it have a definite advantage. The only joker in the pack is the weather, and I don’t mean the heat. The wind came up about 10:00 am, and started howling a gale. The stadium is at the top of a hill, so it gets the full brunt of the wind. The flags were snapping, the flowers were swaying, and trash was blowing across the arena…all the things that event riders do NOT want to have happen. Several riders who could have legitimately expected to get good scores were adversely affected by the conditions.

Probably the most notable in this group was Blythe Tait, who has been going well all week. Reddy Teddy jigged into the arena, spooked at the stands, and proceeded to kick over the flowers and plastic letter at “A” as he started his entrance. After that, it would be safe to say that Blyth was engaged in damage control, rather than dressage. The look on his face as he left the arena would make your stomach knot. Here are the Individual Gold medal winners from the Atlanta Olympics, and they are effectively out of the competition before they have jumped a fence.

I saw him later on and said “Sorry, Blythe.” “Yeah, well, what can you do?” said Blythe. We both just shook our heads and kept walking because we both know the sport. Blythe is one of the best riders in the world; he has spent 4 years of his life getting ready for this moment, and it is over before it ever even got started. What can you do? Nothing but do what Blythe is going to do…just keep going.

Probably the most exciting test of the day was the Frenchman, Didier Courreges. His horse was almost as wound up as Blyth’s, but he came in and did what I would refer to as a typically French test. In other words, bordering on lunacy. I mean, forward does not begin to describe it. But he got away with it, and he deserved his score.

I am having quite a day. Olympic competition today, and then tonight there will be a party in downtown Athens, with the 3 medal winners from Sydney in attendance. David O’Connor, Andrew Hoy, and Mark Todd make up a pretty good brain trust for the horse world. Plus there will be several other Olympic, World Championship, Pan Am, and European Championship medal winners in attendance.  I have to make a short toast after dinner, and I have already written it out.  “This is the greatest collection of horse talent since the last time Burt de Nemethy and Jack LeGoff had lunch together.” It will be quite a gathering, and I am looking forward to it.

I have to drive into downtown Athens, which is not a job for the faint of heart, so I had better get going. More as it occurs to me.

 

 

August 16th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. Picture this. Early morning at the Olympic training center. Quiet, a few early birds like me out and about, cool, clear skies with a promise of heat to come, but very comfortable right now. I had wandered alone up to the far training area to see if anything was going on yet. It is a good thing I did, because I had one of those moments that those of us who are horse crazy treasure for the rest of our lives.

I spotted a tall, elegant dressage rider in the far end of the arena, working in collected trot. It wasn’t just the element of collection that drew my eye, but the unity, the harmony, the inner peace that defined the moment. When she turned towards me, I could see that it was Anky Von Gruesven. I had heard a great deal about her horse, Gestion Salinero, but had not seen it until now. As I watched, she turned up the long side and went into a passage-piaffe-passage series of transitions that were as good as I have ever seen. There is a lightness and elegance in her riding that defines dressage for me, and Salinero thinks he is playing with her, not working. She turned back to the other end of the arena, and did some suppling work, while I held my breath, and prayed the moment would continue.

   The ring where she was working is at the top of a hill. Watching her, I was seeing her outlined against the top of the next mountain range. So when she turned down the long side of the arena, the early morning light brought a glow to the surroundings. The footing is so good in the training areas that the horses’ footfalls are silent. And the angle of sight I had put the next ridge in the background at the level of her horses’ feet. She repeated the same passage-piaffe-passage series again in the far corner, but this time she transformed it into the most powerful, correct, floating extended trot I have ever seen. I had the illusion that she was trotting across the tops of the mountain in the background, and her horses’ steps were bounding from peak to peak.

That instant alone would be enough to make my trip worthwhile, but the moment got even better. Nearing the corner, she suddenly broke out into a beaming smile, gave a squeal of delight, dropped both reins, and slapped her horse on the neck, murmuring to him in approval and praise. He held his elevated frame for a few more steps, wagged his head back and forth as if to say “Damn, we’re good”, smoothly lowered his head and neck at the trot, and went searching for grass along the edge of the ring, with Anky continuing to praise him. They walked by the out gate, and turned towards home, leaving me with a new definition of harmony in horsemanship.

I passed David O’Connor and Jane Savoie on my way out.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.” David said.

We smiled at each other, and just shook our heads. What can you say?

All of us had jobs for the day, so we went ahead, but we knew had seen something extraordinary.

In the past, competitors at a major event have consoled themselves after a disappointing dressage test with the thought that “it’s not a dressage contest, and the cross country course will give me a chance to catch up.” I don’t think that is the case in a “short format” event. I’m not alone in this belief. Most of the trainers I have spoken with feel the same way. This means there is more pressure on the dressage phase than ever, because if you fall behind now, you will never catch up. This was going through my mind as I watched the dressage tests today. I also felt a sense of relief that the wind was again blowing pretty hard, and affecting the outcome of the tests. I had been afraid last night that the wind would not be a factor today, thus producing two separate competitions. At least it is the same for everybody. We will have to wait until the final scores to come out, but from the looks on the faces of riders who were a little off in their dressage rides, they agree with me. If you are not in the top 6 or so of the dressage phase in a short format, you are not going to be waving at Mom on the ‘Tron during the victory ceremony. It was a long day standing in the wind and sun, and as I trudged down the hill I couldn’t help but think that I had had enough dressage for a while.

 Some one recently asked me about the life I live these days, what with all the pressure, traveling, and time spent alone on the road. “It is not so bad” I said, “except that you have to go so many places they don’t take Labradors.” I have had a black Lab at my heel all my adult life, so I am like a man without a shadow right now.

Anyway the day is over, and the grounds were already quiet when I left. All the horses have finished their dressage, and have been put up for the night. The riders are still out walking the cross country course, lonely figures trudging along, each one making their final plans, and going through their last minute rituals. The competition is in their hands now, and that’s the way it should be. Tomorrow is a big day. 

 

 

            August 17th, 2004

            Greetings from Athens. The cross country course turned out about as the insiders had expected, which is to say that it was easy for horses and riders at this level. It was funny talking about the course beforehand with my pals, as there was a conspiracy of silence about it. We all knew it was easy, but we were all afraid to say so, because that is considered terribly bad luck. Fortunately, we were right, as the alternative would have been a disaster for the sport. The real agenda for this competition is to stay on the Olympic calendar, and off the front pages of the newspapers. In my opinion, almost any compromise is acceptable to achieve that goal. We are fighting a holding action with the IOC, and indeed with our own international ruling body, which has been astonishingly and distressingly hostile to Eventing over the past Olympic quadrennial. This sort of day was the best possible outcome for our sport and I welcomed it. That doesn’t mean I have changed my mind about the short format-long format controversy. There is no comparison…one is a test of training, and the other is the complete test of horse and rider. It is as simple as that.

I took a look at the jump fault sheets, and there were as many falls as refusals, which tells you that many of the riders were chasing the clock. (There were 13 refusals, and 13 falls, out of 75 starters. Only 3 involved the fall of a horse, and several of the falls of rider occurred when the horse refused. Stupid SHOULD hurt.)

There will be a lot of discussion in the months to come about the rights and wrongs of the new format. It was designed by Germans for Germans and so on. At the same time, one of the German team’s top three scores is held by a thoroughbred and one by an Irish Sport horse. I’ll have to think about that one a little while. 

 The horses look pretty good, so all in all it was a satisfactory day for the sport.

 

Watching a major event these days is a bitter sweet experience for me. Have you ever heard of a bird called the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken? There used to be millions of them, down in east Texas. They are beautiful, in an understated way, and have an elaborate mating dance, like most species. But the thing of it is, there are only 60 of them left, in an undisclosed location south-west of Houston. If you want to see one, you had better hurry, as they are only one prairie fire and a couple of coyote raids from extinction. The point being that if you destroy something’s habitat, it goes away. And it doesn’t come back.

http://www.earlham.edu/~stclaka/apchicken.htm

            We need to think about the habitat of the things we love.

 

August 18th, 2004

Greetings from Athens. There is no tension like that surrounding the final Vet check at a big team competition. It is not that anyone wants to do away with the vet check; it is just that riders hate it when they can’t affect the outcome. I thought the ground jury set a sensible standard. One coach murmured to a compatriot who was on his way to have his team inspected, “Don’t worry; if they passed mine, they have GOT to pass yours!” Funny, but true enough. Some horses passed that were a little bit “knit-one-purl-two” but the lame horses were left in the stables.

The protocol at the final vet examination calls for the coach and the Chef D’Equipe to accompany the team when the horses are presented to the Ground Jury. You stand quietly at the end of the jogging lane, while your horses are inspected, as a recognition of your responsibility for the horses being presented. It is a brief moment of peace in an otherwise frantic atmosphere, and I always think of my father, who coached the US team in 1952 at Helsinki. It is an odd feeling, to stand where he stood 52 years ago, but it gives me a sense of connection. I know he and Mom are watching. I hope they are enjoying the show.

I have been subsisting on a diet of cold cereal and hot dogs for the past 10 days, and my stomach is starting to mutiny. It was with a small sense of relief that I realized that I was putting away my last Greek hot dogs. There is probably stuff in there that eats Salmonella for breakfast. At least in the States, they don’t lie to you on the label:

“Pork hearts and beef by-products.”

At this point it is a blessing that I don’t read Greek. What would these labels say?

“Road kill and octopus by-product”?

I don’t wanna think about it. If you are what you eat, I’m going to glow in the dark by the time I get back to the States.

I’m getting ahead of the story, but did you notice there was no one in the grandstand for the final show jumping? No, all the seats were sold out. What happened is that about mid-afternoon the food vendors at Marcopoulo Stadium got a surprise visit from…are you ready?...drum roll!...yup, the Ministry of Food and Health. Shut those suckers right down. So, people did the understandable thing, and said “we can have some fried squid at that lovely little spot on the beach at Porto Ransi, and catch the final on the boob-tube”. Hence, no crowd. Remember that old definition of an honest politician? When he is bought, he stays bought! Major bribery breakdown here, if you ask me.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been shut down. Modern society disapproves of serving under-age rats. It is just that their sense of timing was a little off.

One last word about the attitude behind the scenes here in Athens. The stewards have been nothing short of terrific throughout the Games. Remember those exercise rings I mentioned earlier? They have at least one steward on duty at all times. The stewards are there ostensibly to enforce the FEI and IOC rules, and at past Games they have been a major irritant…officious, pedantic, and bureaucratic. Here, they have been just the reverse.

I was warming up Mike Winter for the team round of show jumping. His horse, Ballista, is a thoroughbred, and gets pretty competitive in front of crowds. There was a long walk from the final warm-up to the main arena, under a tunnel and down a ramp. Because everyone is nervous, not just the riders and coaches, they had been sending the horses down quite early, and making the horse wait next to the railing of the main arena. I came over to the two young ladies at the gate who were sending the horses down according to the order of go, and asked for a little more time before they sent Ballista down to wait his turn.

“Don’t worry, no problem”, was the reply. At this point one of the young ladies’ radio started giving off, with the man on the other end obviously in a condition. She spoke soothingly into it, turned to me, and smiled. “I told the chief steward you had already started down”, she said, “but you can take another minute or so before you really have to go. We will let you know. “At the last possible instant she sent us down the ramp. I thanked her profusely as I went by.”Don’t worry,” she said again, and turned to look for the next horse. That has been the attitude throughout, of caring for the horses and riders, not enforcing the timetable.  

I know, I know, you want to cut to the chase and start talking about Horsegate, but we need to talk about the show jumping courses first. I thought the designer, Olaf Peterson, did an excellent job with both the team and the individual courses. They were not huge, but technical, and very airy. The oxers were square, and the verticals did not have any ground lines, so you had to be accurate, and your horse had to want to leave the jumps up. Probably the biggest crowd pleaser was Amy Tryon, who jumped one of only two double-clear rounds to move up to 7th from 22nd after the cross country. Poggio has never exactly been what you might call disciplined, and the pressure of the Olympics brought out the best (or worst, if you are Mark Phillips and George Morris, writhing with fear on the sidelines) in him.  Amy would make a smooth, balanced turn, look for her stride to the next jump, and Poggio would chuck his head, and take off like a scalded cat for it. After a desultory, half-hearted half-halt, Amy would put her hands down and let him sort it out. 28 efforts spread over two rounds, and all of them stayed up, somehow.

“I figured if I just let him tear around like I do cross country, he’d figure it out.” Amy said. Nerve wracking, but it worked. George Morris, the US Eventing team show jumping guru, did not look as if he were listening to celestial music as she was going around, but what can I say? The jumps stayed up.

Unfortunately, they did not all stay up for Kim Severson. It tells you something about her talent, when I say that I am disappointed that she got the Bronze. I was convinced she was going to win it. But the margin at this level is incredibly small. My Canadian team was only two tenths of a point behind the next team. That works out to one rider getting one mark better on his position from one dressage judge, over three days!

I saw Kim right after the medal ceremony, and she was being the best possible sport about the results, but I know her well enough to see that she was tormented inside. She blames herself for the US team’s failure to win a medal. That is not how it works, but that is the way the great ones think, and that’s what she is dealing with right now. Do you listen to John Mayer? Check him out. Good voice, good musician, and fabulous song writer. He has a song called “No Such Thing.” Some of the lyrics go;

“I’d like to think

  the best of me

  is still hidden,

  up my sleeve.”

Kim is painfully shy, and she keeps most of what she thinks up her sleeve. But one of these days she will reach up her sleeve and pull out a handful of gold medals, and she will redefine excellence when she does it.

We have always been fortunate in the people we have at the top of our sport, and Bettina Hoy is no exception. There is no one alive less deserving of the turmoil that surrounded (and continues to surround, as of this writing) the final result. She is an absolutely admirable person, as well as being a worthy medal winner.

I don’t know if you saw it on TV, but there was a moment when Bettina came out of the ring after the final round, jumped down and hugged her husband, the Australian 3-time Gold medal winner, Andrew Hoy. They clung to each other for an instant, then turned, faced the cameras and smiled and waved. Two things occurred to me simultaneously: one was that the Hoy’s have just supplanted the O’Connor’s as the Eventing partnership of the century; and two, that Bettina and Andrew’s smiles were strained, and the lines around their eyes were deeper, and they seemed to be leaning against each other, as if bracing for the winds of controversy they know are sure to follow. No one deserves it less, but no one is better equipped to handle whatever comes with poise and grace.   

All you can say about the situation is that there are not going to be any winners, only losers. Whatever happens, there will always be an asterisk next to the results in the history books. At the same time, you can’t be too judgmental of the British, French, and US teams for protesting. This is a big business these days, and all 3 teams receive money from their governments and Olympic committees. They owe it to their employers to leave no stone unturned. My own opinion? I was sitting there, but did not notice it, and haven’t seen the tapes. It is too late for all that anyway, as this sort of thing has a momentum all its own. We are just riding shotgun down the avalanche.

So it will go to arbitration, and whatever happens will happen. All I can tell you is that when I left the stadium, I happened to catch up with Bettina’s horse, Ringwood Cockatoo. His groom was alternately crying with joy and chatting excitedly with her pals. She did not notice an old, broken down ex-eventer step in next to her lovely grey, murmur a couple of words into his ear, and give him a reverent pat on the neck. He turned to see who it was, and I could see the Irish sense of humor in his eye, so typical of his type. It was obvious to me that he thinks he is pretty special. I think so, too. I gave him one more pat, and walked on alone, down the hill into the dark. I thought of my late friend, Reiner Klimke. He had a saying that sums up the whole situation for me. He used to say:

“My horses are not my slaves. They are my friends.”

“With a friend like that” I thought,”Bettina doesn’t have to worry about how it comes out.”

I’m pretty tired, and homesick, and I am headed back to the Blue Ridge. It is a long way from Milford, Kansas, but it is home now. I have 3 grandsons that I haven’t seen for a while, a Lab who misses me, and a wife who just put my picture on a milk carton. I hope you enjoyed reading my diary as much as I did living through it. Give your 4-legged friend a pat for me...that’s what it is all about. Goodbye from Athens.

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