A case of cautious optimism

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Britain's equestrian teams will aim to wipe out memories of their Barcelona blank when they compete in Atlanta with mixed hopes of medal success.

The show jumpers and the three-day eventers returned empty-handed from the last Games despite pre-event confidence, while the dressage riders were at least true to form in failing to secure their first Olympic medal.

This time there is again optimism, though rather more guarded than four years ago, since the Atlanta conditions of heat and humidity will be something of an unknown quantity for the European horses.

The sensitive animal welfare issue has prompted much concern over how the climate will affect the horses and a great deal of research has been carried out into questions of acclimatisation and how the events should be run.

One result is that the three-day event, which makes particular demands during the cross-country, has been modified to provide extra "cooling- off" periods before the most strenuous part of the test.

It is the eventers who carry Britain's best hopes of a medal, with the competition now changed to stage separate team and individual events.

Previously, team medals have been awarded on an aggregate best-three scores basis from one competition.

Britain will be among the team favourites, having won the world and European titles in the past two years. They have picked eight horse-rider combinations, from which the team of four plus three individuals will be chosen.

The squad's most experienced rider is Ian Stark, who is ready for his fourth Olympics. The 42-year-old Scot has already collected three silver medals - two team and one individual - and could be a key figure in Britain's bid to capture gold for the first time since 1972.

Mary King and Karen Dixon, both in the Barcelona squad with Stark, are the other riders with Olympic experience as Britain prepare to battle with the favoured New Zealand and American teams, plus the reigning champions, Australia.

Ronnie Massarella, Britain's show jumping team manager for 26 years, retains an unshakeable belief in his squad's ability to win medals, though they have failed to do so at the last two Games.

The tried and trusted trio of John and Michael Whitaker and Nick Skelton, all of whom were in Barcelona, will be joined by the first-timer Geoff Billington as Massarella dreams of adding to Britain's solitary gold - won back in 1952.

The four-strong dressage squad will be rank outsiders again on past performances. But recent improvements in international events have given rise to cautious hope that they could get near to that elusive first medal.