LONDON — Equestrian cross country can best be described as the Olympics' profuse apology for dressage.
"Sorry for that horse ballet the other day; now watch'em jump off a grassy cliff."
Greenwich Park offered 28 different obstacles for riders that had walked the course and their steeds who hadn't. Each one was tailored to a different landmark, the majority of them in London. Some are large hedges. Some involve a dip into water.
All of them have some element of inherent danger — which is one reason the park expected about 50,000 spectators on a Monday afternoon.
But what were they here to watch?
"Watching NASCAR for the crashes" has motored into the realm of sports cliché — like using "motored" as a verb when discussing auto racing, for example — but it's an undeniably sordid part of the sport's appeal. It's not something many fans will boast about when faced with its potential repercussions — paralysis, death, destruction of perfectly good sponsorship logos — but that spontaneous chaos becomes something to tacitly anticipate.
As I watched spectators at Greenwich Park flock to the most challenging obstacles, I began to wonder if the same principle applied here: Would they admit they chose their seats based on the potential for a horse and its rider to go hooves-over-helmet?
Wendy Watson sat in a lawn chair near Obstacles 10 and 11: The "ancient marketplace" that involved a series of leaps in quick succession.
"We've got three jumps here, and I think they'll be a bit tricky. Especially this one here," said the British native.
So by tricky she means, perhaps, a horse could topple over?
"Yeah maybe. Or miss it altogether."
Phil and Heather Robbins of Kent sat on the grass down the fence from her, sipping a couple of beers at about 11 a.m. in the sun. Had they chosen this spot because it looked dangerous?
"It looks interesting," said Heather.
"Yeah, we would use the word interesting. We wouldn't want to use the word dangerous," said Phil.
"If they put stands here, you expect there'll be something to be good," said Heather, pointing to the packed bleachers of spectators near the jumps.
An excellent point — why have stands there to watch the race if it's not a prime spot on the course.
"It's not a race," said Phil. "In a race, you tend to have them all at once, don't you? Where as this is one at a time. This is more like a trial. A time trial."
But this would be more exciting if the horses all ran at once, right?
"I think it would be extremely dangerous," he said. "And we'll just watch the Grand National if you want that."
Would anyone admit they were hanging at this obstacle for the crashes?
"I want to see some people fall off," said Katie Cousins, a Brit, with a laugh. "As long as the horse and rider are fine."
"You know, if the Germans accidentally have a few tumbles. Because they're in the lead," she continued.
"Actually, anyone that's above us in the standings."
• • •
There is more "ooooh"-ing and "aaaah"-ing in watching this sport than there is in a Las Vegas illusionist's show. And most of them are heard at Obstacle 20.
Obstacle 20 ("The Royal Greenwich Borough") makes Obstacles 10/11 look like a speed bump. The horse runs up to the edge of a cliff, with a steep decline right into another jump. The obstacle takes extraordinary balance from both horse and rider; keep in mind, this is well into a stamina-draining competition.
"We came here for the jump," said Stuart Smith, a Brit standing near a white rope just steps away from the cliff.
"I don't want to see the crash," said Brenda Smith, standing next to him. "I really want to see the technique. Obviously, the horses haven't seen this, but the riders have."
Stuart pointed to the cliff. "Did you see that last rider, though? I didn't think he was going to make it."
Nor did I, as rider and horse both leaned treacherously forward before the rider balanced them out, leading right into a jump over the next obstacle that had the crowd cheering.
There wasn't a crash. But there was the potential for one. And therein lies the morbid appeal of equestrian cross country for some in attendance.
"You want a bit of 'uh-oh', don't you?" said Stuart.
"That's what it's all about, isn't it? It's a risk sport," said Brenda.
• • •
It's a "risk sport."
That term reverberated through my head as I watched the impeccably named Gin And Juice throw its rider, Canadian Hawley Bennett-Awad, and continued running. (Perhaps the horse didn't have its mind on a medal and a medal on its mind.)
Bennett-Awad was taken to a local hospital for treatment, and the event was delayed for 20 minutes.
One of the next riders up was Carl Bouckaert of Belgium. Down he went as well, with his horse Cyrano Z stepping on his chest before trotting off.
Moments later, Takayuki Yumira of Japan did a full somersault with his horse Latina; both walked away from it.
The cross country race continued, as riders from 13 nations maneuvered over uneven ground, hanging branches and 28 obstacles. The fans cheered loudly for every one they cleared, gasping when it appeared they wouldn't.
It was the most intense afternoon I've seen at the London Games, juxtaposed by one of their most serene settings. A quiet day in the park, this was not.
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