Equestrianism: Sun shines on Pessoa in Games finale

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The Independent Online
AS THE final cheers rang out for 25-year-old Rodrigo Pessoa, the brilliant new world show jumping champion, the Italian organisers of the 1998 World Equestrian Games could congratulate themselves on a job well done.

They could not be blamed for the filthy weather at Pratoni del Vivaro during the three-day event which ended nine days ago. Nor could they claim any credit for the sun that shone over the Flaminio Stadium for the show jumping, which finished on Sunday.

The Italians accomplished what the Dutch failed to do in The Hague four years ago by hosting two weeks of top-level equestrian contests which were well organised, with a minimum of red tape. Everyone will hope that the Spaniards can do the same in Jerez de la Frontera in four years' time.

Worthy champions emerged in all five disciplines, especially in the Olympic sports of show jumping, three-day eventing and dressage - won, respectively, by Pessoa from Brazil, Blyth Tait of New Zealand and Germany's Isabel Werth.

Admittedly there was a near-riot when Werth defeated the more flamboyant Dutchwoman, Anky van Grunsven, by a tiny margin - but that only went to show that these two great riders can create a fervour that is not normally associated with the esoteric art of dressage.

Now that Britain has lottery funding for the Olympic disciplines, objectives have to be identified in advance. In each sport the aim had been to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney - and all of them made it. As it turned out the team bronze medals for three-day eventing and show jumping, though modest achievements, were actually seen as a bonus.

But the paymasters will want to see their money is well spent, with enhanced performances in all three spheres. Oddly enough the dressage riders, who just sneaked into the eighth (and last) qualifying place, seem to have the best long-term plan. They have a high-powered German trainer in Conrad Schumacher and some wonderful horses capable of winning future medals.

The British three-day eventers, so badly hit by injuries to key horses, can also expect better results. It could be the show jumpers who end up struggling to achieve their objectives.

British show jumping has relied for so long on the talents of their top riders (David Broome and a few others in the past, the Whitaker brothers and Nick Skelton in the present) that team morale has become bound up with whether or not the talented few have the right horses.

The international team trials, introduced last year, have also been criticised. There were many who thought Di Lampard, who won her place through the trials, should not have competed at the World Games. Yet she had the best British score for the bronze medal team as well as the highest individual place, finishing 12th on Abbervail Dream.

Pessoa, who visited an instructors' course in England last autumn, was critical of standards at the time. "The British may have to clone John and Michael," he said, acknowledging the Whitaker brothers' undoubted flair. Perhaps, with the help of lottery funding, they could take the more orthodox route of providing basic training for talented youngsters.