Skelton's cruel fate in redemption ride

The hush which fell across the Olympic Equestrian Centre as Nick Skelton and Arko III entered the ring was as pronounced and immediate as that produced by a respected teacher applying a finger to his lips.

The hush which fell across the Olympic Equestrian Centre as Nick Skelton and Arko III entered the ring was as pronounced and immediate as that produced by a respected teacher applying a finger to his lips. Just the rhythmic pounding of hooves on turf and exhalation through the stallion's nostrils punctured the silence of the showjumping ring. This was Friday night, an hour before Paula Radcliffe abbreviated her 10,000m final by more than a third of the 25 laps, a few miles across Athens.

If anything, Skelton's emotional investment in these Games had been even greater than Radcliffe's. Not merely because he had been to the Olympic trough three times previously and had failed to partake of water. At one time, merely participating in this event would have been inconceivable. This was the man who had surveyed the Sydney equivalent from a hospital bed, his head snared in a metal contraption, like a brutal medieval torture device, to repair his broken neck - the legacy of a fall from a young horse - and allow the ligament and bones to fuse. This was the character who, a year later, had "retired" from the ring, and conceded: "My luck has run out".

Yet he had returned to ride, with the blessing of a German neurological specialist. In conjunction with his full recuperation a magnificent horse had materialised, as if gifted in penance by the gods. Arko, now a 10-year-old, is the property of John Hales, better known among the horseracing fraternity as the owner of the dual King George VI victor One Man. Arko, according to Skelton, now 46, was "a horse of a lifetime".

There was a sense of destiny when, the combination having leapt clear with insouciant abandon in the first round - one of only two pairs to do so - the final rounds of their opponents were characterised by a satisfying cacophony of trampled bars and poles, together with the spectacle of refusals, retirements and eliminations. In the second round, Skelton entered the ring last. A clear round would win it. Four faults would mean a jump-off for gold. Even eight faults would have given him an opportunity of silver or bronze. It was simply too inviting, an almost too symmetrical sequence of events.

The dream died within seconds. The British pair had overcome only three obstacles when Skelton heard the spine-chilling rattle of his mount's hoof dislodging a bar. It became worse, even as an entranced Equestrian Centre willed Skelton and Arko III to maintain their impetus and ride the remainder clear. They clattered two more, and that was it. Jilly Cooper's fictional sortie into the equestrian world was never like this. This was harsh reality. As a sombre Hales, whose nerves do not allow him to watch rounds (he relies on his daughter Lisa to talk him through), observed: "It's a cruel sport at times."

The spoils went to a gifted young Irish rider, Cian O'Connor, at 24 the youngest member of Ireland's squad, on Waterford Crystal, with a clear round following four faults in the first. It rewarded his country with their first-ever Olympic equestrian medal. O'Connor is a grandson of Ireland's former rugby international Karl Mullen, after whom his stables in Co Meath are named. He was first introduced to the showjumping ring only five years ago.

In contrast, Skelton's career may not be quite as old as the hills surrounding this Equestrian Centre, but there is not much in it. It can certainly be chronicled back to showjumping's golden era, when his association with Apollo and St James brought him top prizes in the 1980s, including three Hickstead Derbys. Skelton, whose autobiography, Only Falls and Horses, will presumably receive an updated chapter rather different than that planned throughout the last four years, stood afterwards, pallid and chastened by events, and the words he uttered around the time of the 2000 Games - "I've been close too often and seen it all go wrong" - appeared to mock him.

As he sportingly hailed Rodrigo Pessoa, offering a thumbs-up as the Brazilian passed, riding Baloubet du Rouet, on their way back to the ring to claim silver in a jump-off with the USA's Chris Kappler, Skelton muttered: "I had my heart set on it." Despite the lance to the heart, he accepted defeat with a Stoicism which, in the days following that "Paula Moment", has epitomised the British competitors. The cynical may suggest it has needed to, because since Solid Gold Saturday such rewards, Kelly Holmes apart, have been non-existent.

Skelton's horse was at fault, of course, but that is the nature of the contest. He did not dwell on that. Neither did Kate Allenby in Friday's women's modern pentathlon. She lay in silver-medal position after three disciplines, but then, in the riding, was allotted a beast named Babar, who had a propensity for leaving a trailing hoof behind at obstacles. No fewer than five were dislodged. Her opportunity was gone by the final event, the 3km run.

However, her compatriot, the 26-year-old world No 1, Georgina Harland, who started the run even further back, chased down 11 runners and a 49-second gap to secure the bronze. On the way, Harland passed Allenby, who had won bronze in Sydney. "Go get that medal for us," Allenby implored her team-mate, and Harland duly complied. It was testament to the best of British at the end of a week which has become the most frustrating of British. Skelton will concur.

Suggested Topics
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine