Americans gaining on European counterparts

Updated: August 28, 2004, 12:32 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Immaculately groomed horses, smartly dressed riders and the grace and beauty of equestrian events have always provided a dignified alternative to the judging disputes overtaking the Olympics.

Not this time.

At the Athens Games, the usually rancor-free riders started swinging their collective crops and galloped headlong into the mosh pit with such sporting rabble as gymnastics, boxing, fencing and rowing.

And when the sniping was over, the United States actually picked up another team medal in an encouraging Olympics that showed Americans were making inroads against the European powers of the sport.

The drama began with the three-day event, horsemanship's equivalent of the triathlon, combining dressage, show-jumping and cross-country agility.

Everything seemed to proceed normally, with the horse powers of Europe taking top honors: Germany won team gold, followed by France and Britain.

But the results were quickly overturned by judges who determined a German rider had crossed the starting line twice, a decision that elevated the United States to bronze. But not so fast again -- an equestrian appeals committee came along and overturned that ruling a couple hours later.

Britain, France and the United States then made a joint appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Athens, which ruled three days later that the appeals committee didn't have jurisdiction and dropped the German team back to fourth.

Kim Severson of Keene, Va., then also moved from individual bronze to silver.

Grand Prix dressage -- horsemanship's equivalent of gymnastics or ballet dancing -- began while the eventing soap opera was still grinding on.

The United States was expected to challenge German domination in team dressage, but the status quo was maintained. Germany won gold while the United States put on a solid performance and took bronze.

Unfortunately, the scores from the team event carried over to the individual contest, and the U.S. riders couldn't make up enough ground to win a medal.

Germany next won gold easily in the team show jumping event, and the American and Swedish riders rode a timed jump-off for the other medals. The United States produced three clean rounds and faster times than Sweden and ended up with silver.

Chris Kappler of Pittstown, N.J., closed out the Olympics for the Americans with a bronze in individual show jumping, an event marred during the timed jump-off for silver when his horse -- Royal Kaliber -- pulled up lame. The horse was quickly diagnosed with a serious tendon strain and is expected to recover.

In all, the United States collected a team silver and two team bronzes plus individual silver and bronze in the three sports of eventing, dressage and show jumping.

Horse sports -- the non-racing kind -- are important to many European countries because of a heavy investment in breeding. In contrast, U.S. support for Olympic-type international horse sports comes more from the donations of thousands of enthusiasts.

The Americans have coped by buying a lot of European horses and sending their best riders to Europe to compete. They've also hired team coaches in Europe, including German gold-medalist Klaus Balkenhol for dressage and British gold-medalist Mark Phillips in eventing.

The result has been to keep pace with other countries in jumping and eventing, while moving higher in the seedings for dressage.

"We're mistakenly seen as an elitist sport," said three-day event rider Darren Chiacchia of Ocala, Fla. "This is a labor-intensive sport. It's not just the best rider who succeeds but the best rider who provides the best care for his horses. Team USA has the best support group in the world."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press