I was lucky enough to go to the Olympics this week. My family only applied for one event, which was really the only one we cared about enough to brave queues and public transport for – the cross-country section of the Equestrian eventing. We’re a horse-loving family (with the exception of my dad, who enjoys watching equestrianism but not on the same level as my sister, mum and me) so it was a no-brainer to apply for those tickets. It was a pretty great day out – despite Greenwich Park being far too overcrowded, and having to queue for forty minutes or so to get in, and then another half hour to fill up our water bottles.
However what really made the day special was the realisation, courtesy of the commentator, that the eventing is the only sport in the Olympic Games where men and women compete in the exact same event, under the same conditions, on an equal level. This made me incredibly happy, not just as a feminist, but as someone who has always loved riding (albeit I haven’t been on a horse in several years). Throughout my childhood and adolescence, when my sister and I were constantly riding at our local stables, in competitions and at Pony Club (yes, I know, I’m more upper class than a lobster bisque at a formal dinner), gender was never an issue. It was never “a girl’s sport” or “a boy’s sport”. When I learned to play football at my all-girls’ school, it was a different matter. I had it easy, by virtue of the fact that it was an all-girls’ school and so the girls who played football weren’t judged by our peers. But I still had this knowledge that womens’ football wasn’t really considered a “proper” sport for girls – it’s still the case in many schools that boys play football or rugby and girls do dance. Not that there’s anything wrong with dance – but you get my point.
So it was pretty awesome to see the eventing on Monday – not least because the GB team consists of one man and four women, one of whom, Mary King, is basically my hero: she’s a terrific rider and sportswoman, always keeps her cool and exhibits near perfect horsemanship at every event I’ve seen her at. The Olympics was no exception: she and the rest of the time rode exceptionally well and they deserve the silver team medal which they ended up winning.
Another thing which I loved about the Eventing was that, at the medal ceremony, Germany – who won the gold – invited England and New Zealand, the respective silver and bronze medal winners, up onto the podium. I don’t mean that they did this how many other champions do, inviting them to move closer for a token photo – they actively beckoned and helped the other teams squish onto the gold platform. It was a sight of genuine community and pride, something which has always characterised the equestrian community for me. Most of the large events I’ve seen (Badminton, Olympia and so on) have the same feeling. Regardless of the nationality of the riders, audiences at all equestrian events are surprisingly non-partisan. At the Olympics, it wasn’t really surprising that the British riders got the loudest cheers – but the spectators were unsparing in their applause for the other competitors. Ultimately, the sheer joy of watching someone exist in perfect harmony with a horse trumps patriotic instincts. The German team deserved their gold because their performances were superb, and I genuinely didn’t sense any hard feelings from the home crowd.
I wanted to write this because, in a week when Jan Moir (an utterly vile woman and a poor excuse for a journalist) called the cyclist who beat GB’s Lizzie Armistead “some bitch from Holland”, and the U.S.A swim coach’s knee-jerk response to the Ye Shinwen’s storming victory was to accuse her of drug abuse, it’s nice to remember that sometimes the Olympics – and sport in general – can genuinely focus on the sheer talent and grit of the athletes. My only wish on the equestrian side of things is that it will start to be seen as a sport that more people can access, as opposed to a pastime for the upper classes. Much of my childhood was spent on horseback and in stables, through which I developed independence, responsibility, respect, compassion, and the capacity for hard work. I was, and still am, economically privileged – and whilst there are some stable yards that will go the extra mile to include less privileged kids, more needs to be done. Riding is such an excellent sport and one which, as I mentioned, isn’t predicated on the perceived capabilities or strengths of different genders. If the Olympics is truly to “Inspire a Generation”, where better to start?
Note: I was going to write about feminism and the Olympics, but as per usual, The F Word has done so far more succinctly and effectively than I could have done with this lovely round-up. There is also an excellent article on women inspiring girls to take up sport here.