By Louise Parkes
France clinched team gold in Olympic Eventing at the Olympic Equestrian Venue at Deodoro Park today, with defending champions Germany in silver and Australia slipping from the overnight lead to bronze. In a cliff-hanger of a contest it came down to the last four into the arena to decide the result.
The Australians led as the day began, but with only a 4.5 point advantage over their New Zealand neighbours while the French were just 6.2 further adrift and the Germans were stalking the leading pack over 11 penalty points further behind. France was the only one of the leading sides to go into today’s closing phase with a fully intact four-member team however, and in the end that proved the clincher.
The 12-fence track tested the turning skills of horses that took on one of the toughest Olympic Eventing cross-country tracks of all time yesterday. But most were jumping fresh and well again today and the pure quality of the four French horses was key to success.
Australia’s grip on the lead was severely undermined by a cricket score for their opener, Stuart Tinney, whose horse Pluto Mio kicked out four fences and also went over the time-allowed to collect a very expensive 17 faults. This dropped Australia into bronze medal spot, and left New Zealand out in front despite a single mistake from opener Jonelle Price with Faerie Dianimo. With the luxury of the full four-rider side the French were already looking very comfortable after fabulous rounds from both Karim Laghouag with Entebbe and Thibaut Vallette riding Qing de Briot, but they began to look vulnerable when Mathieu Lemoine’s Bart L got tired towards the end of the track and left two fences on the floor for eight faults.
The Kiwis lead meanwhile was further enhanced by a great clear from Clarke Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation, while the Australians held their ground when Sam Griffiths returned on a zero score with Paulank Brockagh. Their chance of gold was gone, but they would hold onto bronze if the man who has led the individual standings throughout the competition, Christopher Burton, could bring Santano II home without incident.
As the final moments played out however the Germans loomed large on the horizon when Sandra Auffarth (Opgun Louvo), Ingrid Klimke (Bob) and Michael Jung (Sam) posted three superb clears to pile the pressure on the three teams ahead of them. The French didn’t flinch, and a foot-perfect run from Astier Nicolas and Piaf de B’Neville meant France posted a finishing score of 169.0 penalties.
It was still all to play for, and legendary double Olympic gold medallist Mark Todd came in as anchorman for New Zealand, but a heart-wrenching 16 faults with Leonidas ll sent Kiwi chances crashing down. Their finishing score of 178.80 left them almost three penalty points behind the Germans and now only an Australian meltdown could keep them on the podium.
And the drama lasted to the very end. Australia’s Burton and Santano picked up eight faults to round up the Aussie finishing score to 175.30 for bronze, relegating New Zealand to fourth, 3.5 points adrift
Todd was tipped for the sixth Olympic medal of his career which would have been a New Zealand record. “That will be one of the biggest lows in my career. The whole week was a roller coaster ride. After yesterday’s cross country we were still in with a chance and then – boom – you’re out. I was hoping to go out on a high. Leonidas is such a good jumper but he got wound up when going into the arena. I thought he would settle but he got more and more rattled,” said the shattered 60-year-old Kiwi legend.
The French however were on a high. This is the first gold and only the second medal of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for the country that has only won two previous team medals in Eventing – a bronze in Rome in 1960 and gold at Athens in 2004.
“This is fantastic,” a clearly thrilled Astier Nicolas said afterwards. “There was a lot of pressure going into this, and really I just had to do what I could for the team. But even though there was a lot of pressure, I didn’t let it bother me. I really enjoyed my round and I am very happy. It’s just fantastic. It is an immense pleasure to be part of this team that has won gold for France. It is something we have waited for for a long time, and it’s amazing.”
And Nicolas could add to that medal tally as he goes into this afternoon’s top-25 individual final in the silver medal spot.