Attempting to topple Germany in team dressage is an even bigger task than beating their footballers on penalties, but Charlotte Dujardin, Carl Hester and Laura Bechtolsheimer defied the odds to give Britain the gold medal in front of 23,000 flag-waving supporters at Greenwich Park today. It not only ended Germany’s 28-year reign as Olympic champions but gave Britain their first medal of any colour in 100 years of dressage competition at the Games.
It was a fitting way for Team GB to celebrate their most successful Olympics for 104 years. This was the medal that took the home team’s overall tally to 20 golds, one more than they won in Beijing four years ago. It followed the performance 24 hours earlier in the same spectacular arena by Britain’s showjumpers, who won their first gold for 60 years. More might follow in the next two days, with Nick Skelton and Dujardin among the favourites to add individual honours to their team golds.
The team dressage event is decided by a series of set tests which all riders have to perform. It is like a combination of ballet and gymnastics, requiring strength, control, balance and poise. Marks are awarded by five judges, whose scores are added together to give a percentage figure.
Having started the day with a slender lead of just 0.562 per cent over Germany, Britain increased the margin by recording a final average score of 79.979 per cent. Germany took the silver with a score of 78.216 and the Netherlands the bronze with 77.124.
Experience usually counts for everything in this sport – the 71-year-old Japanese rider, Hiroshi Hoketsu, is the oldest competitor at London 2012 – but 27-year-old Dujardin in particular has achieved her success with astonishing speed.
Having made her international debut at the start of last year, she helped the British team win their first European Championship gold medal in the summer and by the end of the year was outperforming her colleagues. Dujardin set an Olympic record both in the Grand Prix, the first phase of the competition last week, and in today’s concluding Grand Prix Special. Hester first broke the record with a score of 80.571 per cent before Dujardin broke it again with a mark of 83.286, the highest of the day.
In the small world of dressage – it is estimated that only 30,000 people in Britain take part in the sport – the three British riders have especially close ties. Hester, 45, was given his introduction to the sport 23 years ago when he worked for 27-year-old Bechtolsheimer’s father, Wilfried, a renowned dressage trainer who rode for Britain after bringing his family to Britain from his native Germany more than 20 years ago.
Dujardin, meanwhile, went to Hester’s Gloucestershire yard five years ago as a temporary replacement for one of his employees and has never left. She could be in the unusual position on Thursday of contesting the medals with her boss, whom she playfully calls “grandfather”.
Bechtolsheimer said: “There’s a good dynamic between all of us and we feel very comfortable with each other. We have a good laugh. I think Charlotte and I compete quite heavily over who does the dumbest blonde things. Carl sort of patronises us, like we’re children.”
While nobody would claim that dressage is about to become a major grass-roots sport – do not expect hordes of inner-city children to start pestering their parents for a dressage outfit this Christmas – the British team could hardly have come from more diverse backgrounds.
Dujardin attended a comprehensive school in Bedfordshire, Bechtolsheimer is the grand-daughter of a German property billionaire, while Hester spent the first 16 years of his life on Sark, which he described as “the most ridiculously small island in the world”. Sark has just one post box, which will now be painted gold, as are post boxes in the home towns of all Britain’s Olympic champions.
“I am very proud of that place where I come from and they will be very excited to have an Olympic champion from the Channel Islands,” Hester said. “They were very, very upset that the Olympic torch relay didn't go to Sark. It went to Guernsey instead – and if you come from Sark, Guernsey is a dirty word.”
Britain’s success in dressage is another example of the rewards that Lottery funding has brought. The British Equestrian Federation received nearly £13.4m in Lottery funding between the Beijing Games in 2008 and London 2012, an increase of more than £1.5m on the previous four-year cycle.