German equestrian team hopes to gallop to gold - again | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 26.07.2012
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German equestrian team hopes to gallop to gold - again

Germany's Olympic equestrian record over the years is second to none, and the new-look 2012 team hopes to build on that legacy in London. A clean sweep is not inconceivable, but competition will be stiff.

Dressage rider Isabell Werth competes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Dressage rider Isabell Werth has won eight Olympic medals

Ever since equestrian events became regular Olympic fixtures in 1912, German riders have dominated. Germany has won 81 medals in all, almost twice as many as the next-best country, the United States. Of the three riders tied for the most equestrian medals ever, two of them - Reiner Klimke and Isabell Werth - are German. The three golds that German riders won at the 2008 Olympics were more than the total equestrian medal count of every other country except the US.

Yet despite its prestigious pedigree, the German team that will compete in London is quite different than years past. Reiner Klimke's daughter Ingrid and fellow Beijing veteran Peter Thomsen are back again, but the rest of the team in London will be defined by its youth movement.

After a 2009 doping scandal led to the dismissal of Germany's entire equestrian team, every rider was forced to qualify for London. The result is a hungrier squad that will be a favorite in all three different events, called disciplines, which comprise Olympic equestrian: dressage, eventing (formerly called the three-day event) and jumping. Medals are awarded for individual and team performances in each discipline.

"We have a good, new team with excellent horses," said Susanne Hennig, German Equestrian Federation (DOKR) press officer. "We hope to win a lot of medals."

Young or not, the press have a keen eye on the German squad.

"Germany has a very strong team, even though it's a young one," said Astrid Appels, editor-in-chief of Eurodressage.com, the Internet's largest dressage website. Like other nations competing, Appels added, Germany "has individual riders who will help with the team results and have individual medal chances."

Youth movement

Nowhere will Germany's youth be more evident than in dressage, the discipline in which they have had the most success. Boasting a new manager in Jonny Hilberath after Holger Schmezer died unexpectedly in April, an all-new trio of Helen Langehanenberg, Kristina Sprehe and Dorothee Schneider will face stiff competition from more experienced teams like the Netherlands and hosts Great Britain.

At 25, Sprehe - the youngest member of the team - will be facing riders more than twice her age. The task will be all the more difficult after Germany's strongest horse-rider combo, Matthias-Alexander Rath and Totilas, were scratched due to Rath suffering from glandular fever. The loss of Schmezer - who had coached the team since 2001 - will also be felt.

Still, the question could be not if, but how many, German riders reach the medal podium.

"With the exception of Sprehe, all riders are very experienced and all members of the team have top quality horses, so they are in no way weaker," said Appels. "Germany is a hot favorite for team gold. Also individually, Sprehe and Langehanenberg have very clear medal chances."

Anabel Balkenhol, whose father is a former gold medalist, will represent Germany in individual dressage. At 40, she also is considered young by Olympic equestrian standards.

German rider Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum with horse Shutterfly compete in the final of the individual show jumping competition at the equestrian venue of the Beijing Olympic Games 2008 in Hong Kong, China on 21 August 2008.

Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum was eliminated in the individual jumping finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

High expectations

In eventing, Ingrid Klimke and Peter Thomsen are the only previous Olympic riders returning for Germany. Michael Jung, Dirk Schrade and Sandra Auffarth will join them as the new-look team hopes to repeat its gold medal-winning performance from 2008. They would have won gold in 2004, too, had they not been disqualified after Bettina Hoy began her show jumping round before the judges' starting bell. Expectations remain high.

"They're favorites in [eventing] as well, I'd say," said Catherine Austen, a reporter at Horse & Hound, among the world's largest equestrian magazines, who is by no means alone in her views.

Germany's Hinrich Romeike ride Marius during the cross country portion of the Eventing competition during the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Hinrich Romeike and Marius won two golds in Beijing

"The Germans are a formidable bunch," said a July 17 press release from the worldwide governing body for equestrian sports, Fédération Equestre Internationale. "Ingrid Klimke and Peter Thomsen were both members of the gold-medal-winning side at the Beijing Games in Hong Kong four years ago, when team-mate Hinrich Romeike put in a stunning performance to win the individual title. And this time their squad includes a man who may well be destined to lay down a major marker in Olympic history."

That man is Michael Jung. If the reigning World and European eventing champion wins Olympic gold, he'll be the first person to hold all three titles at the same time.

"It's possible Jung can do it," explained Hennig. "With our eventing team, we were very good in the last Olympics, and I think we can do it again."

Theirs to lose

Like dressage and eventing, new faces in show jumping shouldn't hurt Germany's gold medal expectations. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, called to take the place of Philipp Weishaupt after his horse was injured, has looked sharp, while Marcus Ehning and Christian Ahlmann both boast capable backups in case their primary horses are injured. Janne-Friederike Meyer, only the second woman to ride on the jumping squad, rounds out the team with Cellagon Lambrasco.

According to Hennig, there are about "seven or eight" teams that could medal in jumping, Germany included.

What's more certain is that the competition in London will be intense. The Germans could theoretically sweep all six equestrian golds, but such a feat would be unprecedented.

"It's possible for Germany to sweep all the events," said Austen. "They have the experience. It's theirs to lose, really."

Team representative Hennig offered a different view. "Anything can happen," she said. "The Olympics have their own rules."

A record 41 countries and 200 riders will square off in London's famed Greenwich Park from July 28 to August 9. The equestrian events are among the few where men and women compete directly against each other. They are also the only Olympic events besides the modern pentathlon where animal assistance is a crucial component in human success.

Author: Benjamin Mack
Editor: Mark Hallam