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The Agony of Defeat

German pentathlete sobbing as she misses out on gold because her horse wouldn’t jump is what the Olympics are all about

August 06, 2021

You might think the Olympics are about athletic prowess. You might think they are about global unity, sportsmanship, and a carefully regulated dose of nationalism. You may even think they are about personal triumph in the face of immeasurable odds. But here’s the deal: The vast majority of the athletes at the Olympics lose. In fact, you could make the argument that the Olympics are more synonymous with losing than winning, and countless unforgettable moments over the years—Nancy Kerrigan, Mary Decker, now Simone Biles—back that up.

Thus when we say this video of German athlete Annika Schleu sobbing atop her horse as it trots around the course refusing to jump during the third stage of the pentathlon is what the Olympics are truly all about, we’re not being assholes. We’re just saying the quiet part loud.

OK, so obviously there’s an element of comedy to this video. The horse (named Saint Boy, ironically enough) just does not give a damn, and the scene as it ferries a distraught Schleu to and fro is straight out of an unmade Will Ferrell sports comedy about show jumping. Once you start to peel back the layers of the story, however, it’s hard not to feel for the German.

First of all, pentathletes do not select or ride their own horses. They are randomly assigned horses from a pool of 18 and have to hope for the best. Saint Boy, who was also assigned to ROC athlete Gulnaz Gubaydullina and also refused to jump, was clearly the short straw on Friday.

Dan Mullan

Then you also have to consider the context. Schleu was leading the pentathlon—a five-legged event including fencing, swimming, show jumping, and a combined shooting-running portion called “laser run” (yes, really)—by a whopping 24 points after the fencing and swimming portions. After Saint Boy was done, however, she plummeted to a 31st-place finish in the 36-athlete field.

No matter what you feel about equestrian competition and the risk it poses to animals all so humans can hang some stupid piece of metal around their necks, you have to admit: That’s one tough sugar cube to swallow.