Small protest greets Syrian equestrian rider at Olympics

Aug. 3, 2012: Saber Ahmad Hamcho of Syria arrives with his horse Wonderboy for a training session for the equestrian show jumping competition, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, in London.

Aug. 3, 2012: Saber Ahmad Hamcho of Syria arrives with his horse Wonderboy for a training session for the equestrian show jumping competition, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, in London.  (AP2012)

A dozen people opposed to the Syrian government staged a small demonstration Saturday to protest the presence at the Olympics of a Syrian equestrian rider whose father is under U.S. sanctions for supporting President Bashar Assad.

 Ahmad Saber Hamsho told The Times of London in June that the Assad regime was "only protecting people from guys with weapons." Rebels have fought the regime for 17 months in an uprising that has claimed 19,000 lives and turned into a civil war.

Hamsho competed in the show jumping individual qualifier event, producing a clear round on a horse called Wonderboy. Protesters outside the gate at Greenwich Park handed out leaflets and "Freedom for Syria" stickers.

Hamsho said he was representing the country, not anyone in particular, in the equestrian ring. He said he didn't want to talk about Syrian politics and dismissed the protesters as "totally stupid."

"They should be proud of us athletes who are representing Syria," Hamsho said after his ride. "I represent no one. I represent only Syria."

On Saturday, explosions shook the outskirts of the Syrian capital and helicopters circled as rebels appeared to renew their offensive in the city. Iranian state TV reported that gunmen kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims from a Damascus suburb.

The United States last year placed Hamsho's father, Muhammad Hamsho, and his company, Hamsho International Group, under sanctions for supporting the Assad regime.

The elder Hamsho is part of a circle within the government that has controlled the Syrian economy for decades. The sanctions, aimed at breaking that monopoly and isolating Assad, freeze any assets Hamsho and his company may have in U.S. jurisdictions. They also bar Americans from doing business with them.

The elder Hamsho is also under a European Union travel ban for his support of Assad.

His 19-year-old son, the youngest competitor among equestrians at the London Games, said the Syrian conflict weighed on him but said he was able to concentrate in the ring.

"For sure I feel bad. It's my country," he said. But he said his clean round "gives us and all Syrians positive energy." If anything, he said, the conflict "made it easier for me because I had more will to do better."

He said he was sad that his father could not watch him compete because of the travel ban.

"My father gave me all the support to concentrate and do my best here, and he said, 'Go there and ride for your country and only your country,"' he said.

The Hamsho holding company has subsidiaries ranging from construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and hotels to carpet sales, ice cream production and horse trading.

Hamsho progressed into Sunday's second round of the Olympics competition with a clear round and one-point time penalty.

In other show jumping news Saturday, medal favorite Beezie Madden of the United States was eliminated from contention for individual medals in the qualifying round after her horse, Via Volo, twice refused to jump a fence. Madden won the individual show jumping bronze in China in 2008. She will still be allowed to compete in the two-day team competition, which begins Sunday.

"It was all going well and she was jumping amazing, then she started fighting me quite a bit and all our good work went wrong," Madden said. "She hasn't done a lot of shows recently and I think she became a bit too impressed with the whole place."

Canada's Ian Millar rode into Olympic history by competing in his 10th games, more than any athlete. He surpassed Austrian sailor Hubert Raudaschi, who retired in 1996 after appearing in nine Olympics.

Millar said he's still the same physically as he was at his first Olympics in 1972 at Munich. The only games he missed in that stretch was the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980.

He says he's a better rider now than when he began "because of knowledge and experience." Millar said he was willing to ride again in the 2016 Rio Games and solidify his record, provided his horse Star Power is willing as well.

The 65-year-old Millar knocked down one fence in the qualifier. He competes in the team event Sunday.

Another royal family got air time Saturday at Greenwich Park.

Prince Abdullah Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, a grandson of King Abdullah, jumped a clean round in good time to qualify. The prince, whose father and grandfather are both fans and owners of race horses, said he hoped his grandfather was watching on TV.

"He's the main sponsor for our team," Abdullah told The Associated Press. "He sponsored us with all these good quality horses, and trainers and all good stuff -- top stuff: grooms, blacksmiths -- so I think he deserves to have watched his sons from Saudi Arabia having good rounds today."

Last week, the British monarchy was in the limelight in the equestrian stadium: the queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, was part of the silver-winning British eventing team, and received her medal from her mother, Princess Anne.

Also in the arena that day was Princess Haya, the head of the International Equestrian Federation and a daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan.