August 16, 2008

The jumping discipline of the 2008 Olympic Games kicked off at Sha Tin stadium in Hong Kong last night with a one-round competition which decided the starting order for Sunday's first round of the team event.

Thirteen of 77 riders had clear rounds in the competition, and three clears, from McLain Ward (Sapphire), Will Simpson (Carlsson vom Dach) and Beezie Madden (Authentic), have ensured that the USA will have the advantage when last to go tomorrow night. With just a single fault to count from the competition the Swiss, Canadians and Brazilians will also be low down the order-of-go of the 16 qualified nations.

Sixteen riders left all poles up but cashed in on time faults. Among them were defending Individual gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa from Brazil and World Champion Jos Lansink from Belgium with fully recovered Cumano. There was one elimination, after a fall: New Zealand's Katie McVean.

The first qualifier serves only to set the start order for the second qualifier.

The list of participating countries also includes Norway, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, Mexico, Sweden, Germany, Saudi Arabia, The Ukraine, China and New Zealand, but the biggest cheer was reserved for the three riders from Hong Kong, and the clear round achieved by Patrick Lam and Urban brought a massive response from the crowd while the rider galloped around the ring as if he had already won the gold medal.

"What a feeling!" said the 25-year-old who is based with German trainer Dietmar Gugler near Frankfurt in Germany. "This is like a dream come true! The crowd was fantastic and I've already done more than I ever expected - I have jumped a clear round at the Olympic Games - my horse was fantastic, I love him!" he enthused.

Great Britain's Nick Skelton was one of the early runners in the competition and, riding Russel who was only brought out of the reserve stable after Michael Whitaker's Portofino was declared unfit to compete earlier in the week; he was very pleased when collecting just a single time fault. Skelton was upbeat about his country's medal-winning potential, although he admitted that his own performance depends to a large extent on the mood of his unpredictable 13-year old stallion. "He was great today, but you can never be sure what he is going to do tomorrow - he's a bit Jekyll and Hyde," he pointed out.

The much-fancied German team had an uneven day, but they were taking the attitude that this first competition should give their horses the opportunity to relax in the ring without putting them under any real pressure. Christian Ahlmann and Coster collected 10 faults, Marco Kutscher collected six with Cornet Obolensky and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum's Shutterfly hit the vertical at fence eight while also picking up two time penalties. "I'm very pleased with how my horse went," Meredith said, however. "We decided not to put much pressure on this event, the real pressure begins on Sunday," she said, explaining the German tactics. "We have been waiting a long time for the competition to start because we have been here for more than a week and none of us are used to that," she explained. She has spent her free time in Hong Kong "working on physical fitness, keeping myself busy and doing a lot of shopping!" she added.

She said she feels very honoured being the first female rider ever to represent Germany in jumping at an Olympic Games and that she is "happy to be favourite for a medal - I'm No. 1 in the world and that's great but I also know that a lot of outsiders have won a gold medal at the Olympics so we will just have to wait and see what happens," she pointed out.

Britain's John Whitaker was also pleased with his round despite the fact that Peppermill flicked a toe on the narrow top plank at the pentultimate vertical. "I'm not too bothered about that, we will be starting on Sunday somewhere in the middle of the field so we are happy," he explained. But after Ludger Beerbaum completed the German action with a 10-fault result for All Inclusive there was some curiosity about why the hot-favourite nation were so laid-back considering that today's results count towards the individual rankings.

"Maybe we shouldn't be favourites anymore!" Ludger said, but he and his German colleagues would still be well-placed to fight for the individual medals later next week and that on Sunday, when the fences will be bigger and the course more technical, he and his team-mates would rise to the team challenge.

The individual riders also all compete in the first round of the team event, with the top 50 riders including the eight best-placed teams, going through to Monday's second round after which the team medals will be awarded. The top-35 riders, including those tied for 35th place, go through to Wednesday's first leg of the individual medal-decider and on Thursday next the individual medals will be presented after the top-20 final day.

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