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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to the Olympics, and the sport that normally doesn't get a lot of attention here in the U.S. - dressage. Tomorrow, medals will be awarded in dressage ad the U.S. team currently sits in fifth place. The team includes Rafalca, a horse co-owned by the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. When Rafalca was named to the team back in June, the small dressage community in the U.S. thought the publicity would help their sport.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, that's not quite how things have turned out.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: During the trials to select the Olympic team, comedian Stephen Colbert named dressage his, quote, "sport of the summer, for people who use the word summer as a verb." He was clearly poking fun at Mitt Romney's involvement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW)

STEPHEN COLBERT: But folks, the image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today, because now Mitt is just your average blue-collar fan of dressage. Of course that word may sound highfalutin. But don't worry, it also goes by the street name horse ballet.

ROVNER: The dressage community decided to get in on the joke. For the final weekend of the selection trials, they handed out beer and huge red foam fingers proclaiming Dressage Number One.

Brian O'Connor is a longtime dressage announcer and the brother of David O'Connor, who won an equestrian gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

BRIAN O'CONNOR: It just jumped the word dressage all around the world instantly, and specifically here within the United States in a matter of seconds. I mean, it was just a great, huge - I mean he hit a homerun for us. It was absolutely fantastic.

ROVNER: But while Colbert's ribbing was somewhat gentle, others have tried to use Romney's involvement in what's mostly viewed as an upper crust sport, as a bit more of a cudgel. Take this ad from the liberal group MoveOn.org, for example. It features a talking horse pretending to be Rafalca.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Rafalca) How do I pull off such grace and athleticism while looking so good? Maybe it's because the Romneys spent $77,000 a year on my upkeep. And after Mitt Romney repeals health care and ships your job overseas, I daresay your life will not be nearly as pampered as mine.

ROVNER: The $77,000 is a reference to deduction on the Romney's 2010 tax returns. It may help explain why candidate Romney has begun to back himself away from his wife's passion. When NBC's Brian Williams asked him to describe how the competition worked, in an interview on the eve of the Olympics' opening ceremony, here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MITT ROMNEY: I have to tell you, this is Ann's sport. I'm not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well. But just...

ROVNER: Indeed, even comedian Colbert's edge got a little sharper as the competition drew nearer. Last week, he responded to claims by Rafalca's trainer and co-owner that dressage is not solely a sport for the very wealthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW)

COLBERT: It's something you can do with a normal budget. Yeah, it's really all about budgeting. You cut out a couple of lattes a week. By the end of the month, you got yourself a $3 million Dutch Warmblood.

ROVNER: But it's comments like those that are starting to irritate the thousands of Americans - full disclosure, I am one - who actually do participate in the sport of dressage without being independently wealthy.

Tell me your name.

STACY MALMEISTER: It's Stacy Malmeister.

ROVNER: And where are you from?

MALMEISTER: I am originally from Albany, New York, but I live in Baltimore now.

ROVNER: And who is this?

MALMEISTER: This is Big Max.

ROVNER: I found Stacy and Max warming up at a horse show Saturday sponsored by the Potomac Valley Dressage Association. She's a college student. She doesn't even own Max. He belongs to the Morgan Run Stable in Westminster, Maryland, where the show was being held. Malmeister says she's definitely not part of the 1 percent.

MALMEISTER: You know, I'm trying to ride and scrape together in horse show.

ROVNER: Neither, for that matter, is Celia Rozanski. She's riding Jasper. He's a quarter horse paint, not a fancy warm blood, and she's not a member of the royal family, even though a few of them are competing in these Olympic games.

CELIA ROZANSKI: Sadly, no. I'm working on it.

ROVNER: Actually, Rozanski, who's a college student studying neuroscience, says what bothers her most about all the media attention is the perception that dressage isn't all that difficult.

ROZANSKI: It's a mistake to say that it's easy. It's not. It's really hard. It's one of the most challenging things I've ever done, I think, and I've done a couple of different types of riding.

ROVNER: Ann Romney's horse actually did well in her Olympic debut last week, but this is an Olympics full of superstar dressage horses and her chances for winning a medal are considered a long shot, at best. And bad publicity or not, dressage fans in the U.S. will be cheering her on tomorrow.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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