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Politics, sports intermix in dressage
These cannot be the images an American presidential candidate wants to project during the Great Recession:
The gussied-up American dressage horse Rafalca, co-owned by the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, strutting and prancing and trotting around the Olympic equestrian arena. Ann Romney sitting in the stands, cheering on the horse and its German-born rider who wore the standard top hat and tails and represented the United States. And Twitter abuzz with Rafalca/Romney jokes and jibes, from an image of the horse strapped to the top of an airplane to the partially true statement that the Romney’s wrote off the $77,000 upkeep cost for their four dressage horses on their 2010 taxes. (They didn’t deduct the entire amount, yet.)
Thursday was a good day for the sport of dressage, and a good day for the Romneys — Jan Ebeling and Rafalca performed beautifully, ranking in fourth after their portion of the competition was completed — but it could not have been a good day for the brain trust of the Romney 2012 presidential campaign. The Republican spin doctors will build up the genuine and inspiring side of the Rafalca story: that Ann Romney got into horse riding as therapy to help her multiple sclerosis. And they will surely play to our patriotism, that all of us ought to be fully behind any American in the Olympics.
But liberals were surely giggling and licking their chops at what the Romneys were giving them: a tangible image that could be manipulated into the perfect example of the Republican presidential candidate’s elitism and his out-of-touch-ness with middle-class Americans.
It plays perfectly into one of the many narratives pushed by an Obama campaign that has been on its heels for months. Dressage is a rarefied sport of the privileged, with roots in the Renaissance and the military. The rider effortlessly leads his steed through a series of movements that are compared to ballet with horses. Music that can only be described as elevator music played quietly as Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare, went through her test on Thursday. The series of movements were beautiful, and Ann Romney later told the Associated Press that the horse was “consistent and elegant.” The sold-out crowd stayed silent until the end, and then, when Ebeling doffed his top hat, applauded politely.
What was happening here seemed all-too-reminiscent of the snickering around another recent presidential candidate who was a man of privilege and had a taste for elitist sport: failed 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry with his windsurfing.
As if the Brits had planned it as their own inside joke, the equestrian venue was located on the corner of Romney Road and King William Walk. (You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)
And for all this to happen after Romney’s Olympic comments during his international tour last week that enraged the Brits — he called their Olympic preparation “disconcerting” and wondered if the country was properly excited about their Olympic Games — well, one can only imagine the midnight oil that’s been burned as of late in the Romney war room, doing image rehabilitation.
“He’s the kind of American politician who doesn’t appeal to the British,” said Theresa Smith, who brought her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old twin daughters to Thursday’s equestrian competition in Greenwich Park. “We don’t consider him a diplomat or a statesman, and in order to cover up any more oncoming gaffes, they’re keeping the press away from him. People aren’t focusing on (his comments from last week) anymore. But it’s all right in line with how he’s been.”
Of course, for an American presidential candidate to play poorly in Europe isn’t always all that bad. That may even play well back in the States.
What will play poorly, there is no doubt, is when Mitt Romney tries to portray himself as an everyman while his wife watches the horse she co-owns — worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — doing movements like pirouettes and piaffe and passage. Comedian Stephen Colbert even launched a campaign to brand dressage as “the sport of Joe Six Pack.”
After Ebeling completed his series of movements on Thursday, he pumped his fist. Ebeling’s wife, Ann Romney and a third co-owner of the horse were seated together in the stands, but Ebeling did not know where they were.
“Knowing my three ladies, they’re probably out there in tears right now,” Ebeling told a crush of reporters. “I never meant to have this effect on women.”
Ebeling’s words on Ann Romney were glowing. He had not talked with her the day of his grand prix test, but he said she’s been encouraging him for years: “Do what you know to do, and do what you do best,” she would encourage him. “Just ride like it’s a normal day.”
Added Ebeling: “There certainly was a lot of media attention going on. But it ended up being a really good thing.”
A good thing for the sport of dressage, which barely registers on the American sporting radar? Most definitely. But a good thing for the Romney campaign? Not so much.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at email@example.com.