King Charles holds nerve in jump-off to guide GB to gold

Blend of youth and old hands sees off Dutch in gripping Greenwich finale

Sixty years after a team led by Harry Llewellyn and his legendary horse, Foxhunter, brought home gold from the Helsinki games, Britain's showjumpers once again brought pride to a sport that has, in the modern era, slipped from its position once so deep in the national psyche.

Yesterday at Greenwich, Nick Skelton and his mount Big Star, Ben Maher and Triple X, Scott Brash and Hello Sanctos and Peter Charles and Vindicat produced a near-perfect performance to pip the Netherlands in an enthralling finale.

With the favourites, the Germans and reigning champions the USA, out of contention before yesterday's final round, and the surprise leaders, Saudi Arabia, dropping away to bronze, the battle for gold and silver became a head-to-head.

With a format counting the best three scores from each four-man team over two rounds, the Netherlands could have won it in 'normal time' had their last rider, Gerco Shroeder – on a horse called London – gone clear.

But one fence down meant the Dutch and British were tied on eight faults, representing just two lowered obstacles apiece, after two days of jumping requiring power and accuracy from horse and rider over fences designed to represent British and Greenwich landmarks.

In a gripping sudden-death jump-off, with riders from each nation alternating, Skelton and Maher jumped clear and Brash tipped just one pole. The opposition for the Netherlands posted a clear, then rounds for eight and four faults. It all depended on the anchor man for each team and when Charles held his nerve and steered Vindicat, the least experienced horse on the British team, clear over every fence and landed over the last, the Tower Bridge, with daylight to spare, victory was assured.

The medal won by Llewellyn and his team-mates, Wilf White on Nizefela and Duggie Stewart on Aherlow, was Britain's sole gold in Helsinki. Yesterday's heroes, two and four-legged, brought their country's 17th of these games, but one to treasure as much as any, prompting a standing ovation from a 23,000 crowd.

The four riders brought experience and youth to their party, played out in an iconic setting. Skelton, 54, and Charles, 52, are veterans of seven Olympics between them; Brash, 26 is an Olympic rookie and Maher a second-timer, having ridden in the 2008 games.

For Skelton, the gold medal is the end of a particularly determined and fraught personal journey, for the Warwickshire rider's career hung in the balance after he broke his neck 12 years ago. On Beverley Widdowson's magnificent nine-year-old stallion, Big Star, he led from the front with every round faultless.

Skelton admitted he found watching his team-mates more nerve-racking than jumping. "I wish I could have gone round four times," he said. "But it's just brilliant. It's taken all these years but what a place to do it. It's great for our country and our sport."

The fortunes of showjumping's elite performers have been transformed since team manager Rob Hoekstra (ironically, Dutch-born) took over two years ago. Yesterday's success was the first showjumping medal of any stripe since team silver in Los Angeles in 1984. But there will be the opportunity to add to this year's haul; after their team performances, Skelton and his team-mates go to tomorrow's two-round individual competition high in the rankings.

The British eventing team took team silver last week and today the dressage riders – Carl Hester, Laura Bechtolsheimer and Charlotte Dujardin – go into their final phase as leaders. At this Olympics it seems that, as well as two legs, two wheels, two oars or two paddles, it is a case of, once again at long last, four legs good.