You wait 20 years for an Olympic medal then two come along in succession, as nobody but nobody with the exception of Nick Skelton has ever said.
The oldest Olympic gold medallist is a Swede called Oscar Swahn, who won in the now bafflingly defunct Running Deer team shooting contest in Stockholm’s 1912 Games at the age of 64. Skelton is six years short of that (there’s always 2024) but in a breathtaking triumph in the Deodoro arena he has become Britain’s eldest since 1908. At the risk of entering pub quiz territory, that was another shooter, Joshua ‘Jerry’ Millner, and furthermore, pedants, he was Irish and competing on a pre-independence joint team.
Equestrian sport may not be triathlon in terms of its physical demands but when Skelton stepped off Big Star and climbed to the podium’s top step he was aided, for heaven’s sake, by a 2011 hip replacement. In the six-man jump-off for the medals he was the oldest competitor by 11 years. It is remarkable in any terms.
Skelton began riding, so it is said, when 18 months old on a Welsh mountain pony called Oxo and won his first international title some 41 years ago. Rio is his seventh Games and, though he’s not done yet, most likely his last.
“I am not going to stop now. I only ride Big Star at the moment. When he stops, I will stop. For definite,” he said. “I have been in the sport a long time. I am so happy – it was amazing. I was just emotional on the podium because I am so happy with what I’ve done. To do it now is unbelievable. It is pretty emotional for all concerned.”
Skelton has been jumping competitively since the early 70s. Even allowing for the commonly long careers in equestrian sport, it is a singular record. It might not have been after a broken neck in 2000 forced his retirement but his full recovery and return to competition two years later has been the stuff of showjumping folklore.
Despite six world and 10 European championship medals, the Olympics always proved a tougher mark. He was leading on a horse named Arko until the final round in Athens 2004 before blowing it, and only in 2012 did he finally make the podium with gold as part of the GB jumping team. This was Britain’s first individual showjumping medal since Anne Moore won a silver in 1972.
A double clear round in the final’s first round here sent Skelton through in joint first place (along with 13 others, rendering that no more than a sorting exercise), but for the second the obstacles are raised in height and the real competition begins.
With the course toughened up, Britain’s Ben Maher was one of the earlier casualties, striking the second and third barriers horribly and crashing out of contention.
Skelton was the 15th rider down the list but well worth the wait, for what followed was magnificent. Big Star, dancing eagerly on his toes before the off as if he knew his moment had arrived, tore into the course with visible enthusiasm.
Over bars, double and triple jumps and a water obstacle he soared, tossing his head with the arrogance of a champion in between. The result was near perfect, another double clear, and catapulted Skelton to the top of the standings as the sole rider with no penalties in either round.
A wait followed to see who could match him. Steve Guerdat, the Swiss reigning Olympic champion, nailed it with immaculate precision on board Nino des Buissonnets, guaranteeing a jump‑off. They were soon joined by the Qatari Sheikh Ali Al‑Thani, a member of the Gulf state’s royal family on board the equally regal-looking First Devision, and then Kent Farrington of the US, who seemed to grin through his double clear round aboard Voyeur. Peder Fredricson of Sweden joined the elite crew, as did Canada’s Eric Lamaze, and now six would contest the medals.
Skelton was first out. This time Big Star looked calmer. They stood still before the off, knowing exactly what was required but Skelton again jumped aggressively, throwing his horse through the obstacles with all the risk/reward mastery of his years. Another double clear.
“I was first to go in the jump-off, and I thought in my mind to go as fast as I could, but be safe,” Skelton said. “He’s a quick horse anyway, and I had to be clear, because it adds a bit of pressure on everyone else. I needed luck on my side, and it was today.”
Guerdat was up next and cracked, hitting the first fence. Then the Sheikh from Qatar, so upright as to be almost leaning backwards, lost his cool and knocked over two. Shakey. The American Farrington winged a couple and Skelton was guaranteed a medal. But which colour?
Last to go were Pederson and Lamaze. The Swede looked good and went clear but with time now added as a factor, came in 0.53 behind Skelton. Silver at least. Lamaze was fast but not quite accurate, clipping a single fence and Skelton, approaching his seventh decade, had his first individual gold medal and Britain’s 23rd in Rio. It was silver for Pederson and bronze for Lamaze.
Skelton was besieged in the aftermath, flushed and euphoric, signing shirts like a superstar and grappled repeatedly in bear hugs from friends and admirers at the Deodoro Arena. But, like nearly all in his sport, he reserved the strongest affections for his Dutch-bred horse.
“Today [Big Star] was absolutely amazing. The last competition he won was the Aachen grand prix in 2013 – it has been two years to get him back. It has taken a lot of work, but I always knew if we could get him right then he could do this.
“He is an absolutely amazing horse. He has all the right attributes and he is the best horse I am ever likely to have. I have nursed him and nursed him, and he has come good for me – this is for him.”
Big Star is 13. Doing all the hard work means he won’t have Skelton’s longevity and the 2020 Tokyo Games would be a stretch too far. So if Skelton is as good as his word, he has won the Olympics with his final shot. Tell that to the grandchildren.
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