Funnell chooses Pride before personal ambition

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There was no shortage of beauty in the bright light of the Greek hills yesterday, but for Pippa Funnell choosing between some of it was the cruellest task she had ever faced.

There was no shortage of beauty in the bright light of the Greek hills yesterday, but for Pippa Funnell choosing between some of it was the cruellest task she had ever faced.

The options: the lure of Britain's first gold medal glinting in the sunshine or the safety of her huge and magnificent horse, Primmore's Pride.

She chose the safety of a horse which stands 17.1 hands and weighs more than half a ton, as she knew she would when she awoke "very poorly, very nervous" at the dawn of a day which she sensed might well define the rest of her career as one of the world's top horsewomen.

Funnell's careful handling of the big horse wiped away the advantage she had gained with her superb work in the first two days of dressage. She dropped from second to eighth in the individual rankings of the three-day event as she came in 28 seconds outside of the 9min 46sec time limit. Not a hair of Primmore's Pride had been disturbed but both Funnell and her Great Britain team-mates, who led the field going into the 45 obstacles of the 5,570m course at the Markopoulo Equestrian Centre but had slipped to third behind France and Germany, knew that their chances of gold had suddenly become remote.

Perhaps a few prayers in the white-painted monastery on a neighbouring hillside might be of some miraculous help, but failing that only a freakish set of circumstances can give the British team and their best hope of individual glory now, fifth-placed William Fox-Pitt on Tamarillo, any revival of hope in today's showjumping phase. They trail the leaders by 12.20 penalty points and Fox-Pitt, who had a fine clear round eight seconds inside the limit, is 9.20 off the pace.

It was a bleak conclusion confirmed for the anguished Pippa, a lioness around the world's most difficult courses but who confesses to long battles with the demons of personal doubt, when France's No 1 Nicolas Touzaint signalled a flawless round, three seconds inside the limit, with a triumphant Gallic flourish coming over the last fence.

The man in the gold medal position did it with his hands raised in the air. That was French panache, perhaps, but not something to dwell on as Funnell, who won team silver in Sydney four years ago, said: "I blew it for myself, but it is all about the team now. We still have a chance of gold as a team, and all our efforts have to go into that. The moment I learned how they were shortening the course, I knew I had a problem. Sport is not about endangering horses."

Ten died in top flight competition in the year before the Sydney Olympics and even though the Italian designer of yesterday's course had wiped out the usual steeplechase section and compensated heavily for the possibility that extreme heat would threaten the health of many of the horses, Funnell's fears were confirmed soon enough when Over And Over, the mount of Belgium's Joris van Springel was taken to the veterinary hospital for an operation on a damaged leg after crashing to the ground. France's Arnaud Boiteau was also eliminated after his Expo Du Moulin was another heavy faller.

Funnell said: "I feel terribly disappointed, but the feeling was expected. Why didn't I change my horse? Because Primmore's Pride is a great horse - as it proved at places like Burghley, Lexington and Badminton, and his value was shown in the dressage and I'm sure it will be in the showjumping. Today I couldn't get him to back off the fences and then build real momentum. I always knew the time limit was a problem."

The dilemma of this normally ferocious horsewoman spoke of the wider problem of equestrian sport in an Olympic movement which moved so relentlessly towards populism during the reign of the former International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Beach volleyball is in because it is sexy and cheap to stage; equestrianism is under threat because it is both élitist and highly expensive. Result: the inevitable dwindling of one of the great Olympic spectacles of great horsemanship and thrilling courage. If you make the course easier, while at the same time complicating the life of a classic jumper like Primmore's Pride, so the thinking goes, you widen the possibility of weaker nations triumphing. You also cut down on the cost of building a full, world-class cross-country course. Yesterday we saw a course, with boats anchored in the Lake fence to provide eye-catching obstacles, that owed more to Disneyland than the not-so-distant site of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

It was not that yesterday's challenge lacked the need for nerve; indeed, for Funnell, particularly, the old imperative of driving forward in a surge of adrenaline was replaced by the much more delicate demand of keeping the great horse safely anchored on the intricate approaches.

Early in July Funnell was reporting that her schooling of Primmore's Pride for the special demands of Markopaulo was perhaps the greatest challenge of her career.

She said: "From a youngster he's had more ability and potential than I ever had. He was bred for it, his dam went twice around Badminton and his sire was ridden by Mark Todd. He's always had this amazing, scopey jump. He is very, very good, but because he is so big, he needs setting up some time before he jumps. You can't spin him around like you can a smaller horse. But he's very fit and he's quite brilliant and I hope we are getting there - but forgive me if I have a cigarette."

As a leading Olympic sportswoman, Funnell refrained from lighting up under the gaze of the world yesterday. But she did confess: "This has been one of the hardest days, and probably the more so because I always feared it would be like this. I was like an old mother hen getting my horse here, putting it on the plane and agonising every minute. You know, though, ask anybody here and they'll tell you that the most important thing of all is not a medal of any colour but the safety of the horses."

In these, of all Olympics, it was maybe something to prize beyond even a desperately required gold medal. Funnell lost time and some treacherous ground. But she did not compromise. It is something she may value long after the tents of the great show have been folded away.