David Owen: Mark Todd, the durable Kiwi aiming to defy time by winning a third gold at Greenwich
Sunday, 22 July 2012
That this landmark in life can be put off, in my case, for another four years is down to a handful of truly exceptional competitors still at the pinnacle of their respective sports in their sixth decade on the planet.
One of these is Mark Todd, the New Zealand three-day event rider.
When he saddles up his Hanoverian mount NZB Campino in Greenwich Park on July 28, Todd, 56, will be embarking on his seventh Olympics.
He has twice won gold, the first all of 28 years ago, at the same Los Angeles Games where one Sebastian Coe – Todd's junior by more than six months – won his second straight Olympic 1500m title.
Having stepped away from the sport after taking bronze at Sydney 12 years ago, Todd is enjoying an unlikely postscript to his eventing career that he describes as "a bit like a rebirth".
"I had pretty much done everything I imagined I could have," he tells me, explaining how he initially lost the motivation required to stay at the top in a sport that requires its practitioners to be small businessmen and women, as well as athletes.
But after a period spent training and breeding racehorses (Todd might have been a jockey had he not grown too tall), he decided in 2008 on a comeback, as what he describes as "a little bit of a dare".
He elaborates: "I thought I would challenge myself to see if I could get to Beijing/Hong Kong on six months' preparation on a new horse." Almost needless to say, he did, finishing 17th.
Having rekindled his enjoyment, he accepted sponsor New Zealand Bloodstock's offer of backing if he would come back until London and "do it properly". And so here he is, a soon-to-be resident of an Olympic Village most of whose inhabitants are young enough to be his children, a few his grandchildren.
Already, he has achieved the seemingly impossible by winning, in 2011, a fourth Badminton horse trial, more than 30 years after his first.
For a point of comparison, imagine that the then 59-year-old golfer Tom Watson had held on to win that remarkable 2009 Open Championship, rather than losing in a play-off to Stewart Cink.
Not surprisingly, the feat gave Todd enormous satisfaction. "I always thought and hoped I would have another big win," he says. "But to actually do it was a huge thrill."
Unfortunately, his Badminton mount, the grey NZB Land Vision, has acquired an injury and will miss London 2012.
The rider, though, appears to have every confidence in his deputy, describing him as "good on all three phases" [dressage, cross-country and show-jumping] and "a horse who is improving virtually every week".
Todd points out that he ran him at the test event last year, a decision he must now be thankful for, given the demanding gradients and turns likely to await riders on the Olympic cross-country course in scenic Greenwich Park.
"I have purposely run him on twisty courses and he has coped very well," the rider adds.
The New Zealander believes that the German team "will probably start favourites" for the gold medal, "closely followed by the British". He puts New Zealand in a cluster of teams on the tails of this leading duo.
Though he has kept his accent, Todd has lived in the UK for more than 30 years, saying it is "just not feasible to travel horses back and forth on a regular basis" and here you are competing against the best.
He has actually been taking lessons from Charlotte Dujardin, a top British dressage rider, and "will be there to cheer her on" in her Olympic event.
Todd, who still rides for "six or seven" hours a day, has no concrete plans to retire. "I will be carrying on in the short term," he says. "As long as I can still be competitive and enjoy it."
There is not the slightest doubt of his will to win.
"I don't suppose anyone has won the individual Olympic title three times," I say, as a parting shot.
"Not yet," he replies.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed by clicking here.