Olympics: Veterans saddle up for their seventh Games

By Michael Brown

Mark Todd is the only gold medallist in the 75-strong field. Picture / AP
Mark Todd is the only gold medallist in the 75-strong field. Picture / AP

Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson first went to an Olympic Games in 1984 and next week they will go to another.

Each will compete in their seventh Olympics in London and, aside from a few more grey hairs and wrinkles and Nicholson's need to wear utility glasses for the cross country, not a lot has otherwise changed for the pair in more than 30 years of top-level competition.

They are still at the top of the eventing world and still among the contenders for medals at an Olympics.

They have some way to go to eclipse Canadian equestrian rider Ian Miller, who will compete in his 10th Games in London and become the most experienced Olympian ever, but seven Olympics is an extraordinary achievement and extends the New Zealand record they hold over Ian Ferguson and Barbara Kendall who attended five Games each.

"It means I have been around an awfully long time," the 55-year-old Todd says.

"It's actually hard to imagine. I can't believe this is going to be the seventh and, really, it should be the eighth because I would have gone to Moscow [if it wasn't for the Western boycott].

"What keeps me going is the fact I am highly competitive. I love winning, I love being part of a team and I love being at the Olympic Games. I still desperately want to win."

Todd has done plenty of that. He won gold on Charisma in 1984 and 1988 and added a bronze in 2000. He also has four Badminton and five Burghley crowns among his 23 individual titles and was named Rider of the Twentieth Century by the International Equestrian Federation.

He retired after his bronze in Sydney but found the Olympics itch too great to ignore and came back in time for Beijing four years ago, when he finished 17th.

Todd's top mount, Land Vision, is injured, meaning he will ride relative youngster NZB Campino. But he can't be discounted because he is the only Olympic gold medallist in the 75-strong field and, as John Francome, one of Britain's great national hunt jockeys, once opined: "You could put this guy on a donkey and he'd still win."

Many, however, are picking Nicholson as the more genuine contender.

The 50-year-old is world No 2 and believes, in Nereo, he has the horse to succeed. It's the mount he rode to individual bronze at the 2010 world championships and the combination have usually been in contention for titles at events this year. He thinks it's his time and, even though he believes he's already achieved it, will help him finally emerge from the considerable shadow cast by Todd and former Olympic champion Blyth Tait.

"It's the first time I have been to an Olympics with a horse who can win," Nicholson says.

"I feel like I am up with the best of them.

"The big thing about Nereo is his generosity. ... he doesn't mind knuckling down and digging deep when the going gets tough. He's also been in pressure situations so often."

There will be plenty of that at the Olympics, as Todd and Nicholson know only too well. Although the five-strong eventing team have been weakened through Clarke Johnstone's absence - all three of his horses are injured - New Zealand are starting to be noticed again after a period of relative inertia. Captain Mark Phillips, who will coach the US team, recently said he thought New Zealand had re-emerged as the big medal threat at London.

"I agree," Todd says. "After Blyth [Tait] and I retired, it went into a downward spiral. It started to pick up in Beijing again and now we have some good, young riders we are very competitive again. It inspires us older ones to try to keep ahead of them. We have a really good team and we gel very well, which makes a big difference. That's the one thing we have in common, we want to win.

"There's a certain amount of luck involved [in winning a medal] and the first thing is the horses and riders need to turn up fit and sound."

And it wouldn't be a surprise to see Todd and Nicholson around in another four years.

APNZ

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