I went to the Paralympics again yesterday. But I'll tell you about that tomorrow. Because I still haven't finished Saturday yet.
Equestrian - the venue: Greenwich Park Some thought the hijacking of Greenwich Park for Olympic purposes would be a disaster. The corporate prostitution of a local asset... grass destroyed... trees chopped down... a Royal Park sealed off from the public for months. The last of these definitely happened, but most would argue that the locating London 2012's Equestrian events in Greenwich has been a triumph. The arena has a heritage backdrop second to none, and is much easier to reach from the Athletes Village than the Games' usual out-of town equestrian venue. Having said that, getting to Greenwich Park wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. First the nearest DLR station was closed, even for passengers travelling against the flow, in what felt like a vast logistical over-reaction. Then there was a 15 minute walk through the coned-off streets of Greenwich, which has mucked up through traffic something rotten, and which passes the aforementioned closed DLR station along the way. And then at the Old Royal Naval College something I wasn't expecting - huge queues.
This is the first Olympic or Paralympic venue I've been to which had proper, genuine, actual queues. Everything else has been straight in, or at most a brief wait, but this was a full half-hour hold-up. We started in pens round the back of the Painted Hall, then shuffled slowly forward in tranches towards the main road. Hats off to the Games Makers on duty for keeping us entertained, most especially to James whose witty droll delivery was the best I've heard all summer. Eventually we reached queues for eight footbridges, which turned out to be three, only to find further queues for security on the other side. I'm not saying half an hour's a bad time to wait, especially when there's a morning crowd to flush out of the stands before the afternoon session can begin. But I only just reached my seat in the grandstand in time, having missed all the introductory information... which would turn out to be very important.
But oh, what a good view. Clear sight of the equestrian arena laid out below, obviously. But the impressive bit was the scenic panorama all around, at least on sides not blocked by high level seating. The Greenwich Observatory up on the hill (only accessible from the non-Greenwich side at the moment, which can't be doing much for visitor numbers), the classical Queen's House as immediate backdrop to the field of play (very nice) and beyond that the towers of Docklands. I thought the view was good for the first hour, but because the event was "General admission" I thought I'd switch location for the second. A long walk around the perimeter brought me to the south stand, and a climb up to the almost-back seats where the official press photographers perch... and this was perfection. A royal Stuart mansion and a cluster of bankertowers were lined up ahead, with the Cutty Sark and Gherkin to one side and the Orbit and (squint) Olympic Stadium to the other. From up here in the gods it was obvious why LOCOG had picked Greenwich Park as a location, because the old/new vista said everything about London that a foreign tourist audience needed to hear. And it also gave me something to gawp at which wasn't the dressage, which was useful, because, well...
Equestrian - the event: Dressage (Individual Championship Test - Grade 1b) Dressage is a peculiar activity. It doesn't involve galloping or jumping over things, like your usual horse-related sport. Instead it's more like figure skating... except with hooves, and no skates, and no ice. Competitors need to be at one with their steed, which means huge amounts of painstaking practice, and then they have to walk (or trot) extremely precisely around a pre-determined course whilst simultaneously trying to make it all look entirely effortless. And that'd be fine, once or twice. But with every competitor attempting to do exactly the same thing, for five minutes, on fifteen consecutive occasions, for the entire session, the repetition can get a bit much.
It helps to be a horsey person. Then you can concentrate on the elegance, the poise, the "transition" between phases and what a fine specimen the mounted beast is. Everything adds up, or rather it's all averaged out over several disciplines to calculate a percentage to three decimal places, and the highest percentage wins. The judges sit in little wooden kiosks at key points around the rectangular corral, beside a series of non-consecutively lettered blocks. This being London 2012 the kiosks are decorated with purple and pink flowers, as are a number of other minor features within the arena. The decoration is so precise you could imagine the WI did it, although I bet LOCOG hired some professionals instead.
The key thing to know if you're a dressage spectator is the need to shut up. Horse and rider need hush in order to be able to concentrate, so a bell is rung at the start of each competitor's session to herald silence. Some horses need more reassurance than that, so a "companion horse" is led in to stand in the corner of the arena for five minutes, and then led out. Silence has to be maintained even afterthe end of each test, so the audience are only permitted to show their appreciation by waving frantically until the horse has been reunited with its trainer, and then applaud. A bunch of Australians cheered too early, no doubt enraptured by the excellent performance of their countrywoman, only to receive a polite dressing down from the commentator. And when a baby started crying mid-trot, you could see the tuts on the faces of the horsey people. Honestly! A baby! Who brings a baby to dressage!
And what of Saturday afternoon's competition itself? British Paralympian Lee Pearson was expected to win, because he's won this category at several Games in years gone by. His performance was rock solid, riding Gentleman, scoring 75 point something. And his performance stood, throughout several subsequent rounds of prancing, until the aforementioned Australian rode up and scored 75 point abitmore. Their performances all looked much the same to me, sat far away in the upper stand, but then I'm not a horsey person.
It was only at the final Victory Ceremony that the true nature of the athletes' achievements shone through. The three winning horses were led into the arena separately, while their riders hobbled in on crutches or rode on a mobility scooter. This was a sharp reminder of how riding a horse can be a real leveller - anything you can do, I can do too. Indeed it's even harder to control a horse with precision when one or more of your limbs doesn't work properly, so the achievements of these Paralympic dressage competitors were all the more impressive. We stood for the national anthem of Australia, those of us who were able, and then we smiled home.