London 2012 is set to be the Olympics where women in sport finally get the respect that they deserve. Unless they are “posh” and enjoy riding horses; then they’ll still face a deluge of patronising comments and have their achievements undermined at every turn.
Equestrian athletes, or “horsey types”, have a tough time with the press. Equestrian sports are dogged by accusations of elitism, exclusivity and snobbery. I get it, I really do. Dressage is unlikely to ever be the subject of a film starring Adam Deacon.
One quick glance at the crowd at Tuesday’s Equestrian Eventing final told me that I was entering a world where folks were predominantly white, rich and from the Home Counties.
Zara Phillips is the embodiment of this curious British establishment. No matter how many naughty rugby players she marries or body piercings she gets, she will always be a member of the Royal Family. No matter what she achieves, she will never be able to escape the critics who accredit her success to her position of privilege.
I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to make out that Zara is “just like us”, she isn’t. One of my mates once saw her shopping in Waitrose whilst wearing a hoody, but Waitrose is more than likely the Royal equivalent of a branch of Spar.
Maintaining a career as a professional rider is not cheap, so being well-off is a huge advantage. Yet there is a lot more to equestrian eventing than money. Riders have to be fearless, fit and incredibly skilful. They have to be strong of body and mind.
Cross-country riding is incredibly dangerous, with both riders and horses at risk of severe injuries. In 2008, Zara broke her collarbone in a fall. Eventing legend, Mary King fell in 2001 and broke her neck, she was back in the saddle and winning titles within 12 months.
In a society that loves the underdog, it is difficult to get behind a sport perceived as one for the topdogs. Yet equestrianism has had a level playing field for men and women for decades. Mary King is 51 and winning Olympic medals.
Let’s celebrate Equestrian Team GB for stuff like that, rather than cracking jokes about their backgrounds. Zara Phillips isn’t “one of us”, neither are Rebecca Adlington, Sarah Armitstead or Zoe Smith. And that’s what makes them Olympic athletes.
Image by Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography