Zara Phillips' gold-medal winning performance at the equestrian world championships has seen the former wild child hailed as a sporting hero - just like her mother was, 35 years ago. But is she really a major talent, or just a toff with lots of cash and a great horse? Stephen Moss reports
It may be something to do with the BBC's desperate search for a sports personality of the year, but we seem to be witnessing some startling sporting transformations of late. First David Walliams goes from fleshy, decadent comedian to courageous swimmer in the course of one remarkable Channel crossing; then Monty Panesar changes, virtually overnight, from bearded joker to world-class spinner; and now Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and 11th in line to the throne, has been alchemised from party-loving royal to equestrian superstar by adding the three-day event world championship to the European championship she won last year.
Admittedly, there are still a few doubters. "Oh, you're not doing another piece about Zara Phillips," one of the Guardian's sports staff said to me yesterday. "Eventing is not even a sport; it's like sheep dog trials." Phillips is a toff who has done well in an outrageously expensive and exclusive pseudo-sport run by and for toffs, is the subtext...
(and indeed, the text - Ed)
...At the heart of this is the fact that Britain has an odd relationship with equestrianism: we are very good at it, but it gets grudging coverage in the media. Phillips, who is 25, might be the start of a rise in profile for the sport, or she might be such a one-off that she will continue to be presented almost independently of it - a model in a hard hat.
Yet eventing is compelling. It combines three phases: dressage, a sort of equine ballet in which, through a series of precise movements, the rider has to demonstrate a perfect union with the horse; the TV-friendly cross-country - on a course about as long as the Grand National but even more difficult and dangerous to ride because the fences are solid and grouped in fiendish combinations - and, finally, show jumping, in which, again, control is the key.
I find it very hard to think of something as a ‘sport’ if it is marked on aesthetic merit by judges.