Buzzer calamity sounds pentathlon alarm
Fittingly for a sport which has just introduced a combined run-and-shoot event, modern pentathlon shot itself in the foot on Sunday.
Three years from London 2012, in the first World Championship event the capital has staged for 23 years, British pentathlete Katy Livingston was closing in on a gold medal when the show jumping round - the penultimate stage of the final - began.
Livingston, leading the competition and the last to ride, had produced the fencing display of her life and a strong swim to lead the final by some distance.
Hundreds of fans' hearts skipped a beat with every jump as Livingston and her horse cleared the first nine fences, then closed in on the final three. If she registered a clear round, she would have every chance of winning the tournament.
Then all hell broke loose.
In the middle of her round, the officials sounded a warning buzzer twice in the space of a couple of seconds. Livingston lost her concentration, careered over several jumps, and was thrown from her horse moments later.
There was no immediate explanation for the buzzer's sudden, brutal intrusion, but as Livingston hit the ground, so her chances of becoming world champion plummeted too. The penalty points alone ruled that out, no matter the damage it did to her confidence and composure.
"They put me off," she called to her coach as she was helped back onto her horse. You could hear that loud and clear. The arena was silent.
It later transpired that the officials noticed a broken fence had not been repaired since the previous round, so they buzzed Livingston to stop. But the course stewards fixed it at the same instant, so the second buzzer told Livingston to carry on since all was now well. It confused everyone else - no wonder it confused her.
"I was really angry as soon as I got off the horse. It was a massive opportunity for me," Livingston told me after the final run-and-shoot event, which saw her drop to 23rd place in the wake of the afternoon's madness.
Livingston herself, while admitting her anger, stopped short of direct criticism of the officials.
"You can't appeal in that situation," she said, ruling out any attempt to alter the result.
"There are a lot of 'what ifs'. Me falling off - was that because I'd lost my focus? Would I have done that anyway?"
But her performance director, 1976 Olympic pentathlon silver medallist Jan Bartu, could barely contain himself when I first spoke to him about the incident, and had only calmed a fraction by the time we talked on the record.
"Katy's riding has been compromised by the judges' decision and she lost focus. She could picture herself fighting for the medal and it has been taken away from her," he said, shaking his head.
"The director of riding believes he has done everything right. We all know that is not the case. It was a massive error of judgement and unfortunately we pay the price."
The director of riding, Philip Harland - father of British pentathlete Georgina - does indeed believe he did everything right.
As soon as the incident had occurred, I went to speak to him. He immediately explained the situation from his point of view, told me he was "content" with the decisions made, and rubbished any suggestion that the officials could have had an adverse impact on Livingston's round.
He did, though, have the indignant air of a man who knew he was about to get a whole heap of flak.
Harland felt Livingston had enough time to make a choice about what to do. Bartu told me Harland should try stopping a horse in that length of time, and see if it's possible.
As the athletes prepared for the next and final event, the run-and-shoot, the British team - Bartu and team manager Dominic Mahony - confronted Harland and his officials.
Equestrian event manager Philip Harland, left, faces down Team GB's Dominic Mahony
When Livingston subsequently rounded off her disappointing run-and-shoot performance, then walked solemnly away from the finish line to pack up her things alone, it made for a horrendous conclusion.
The British team had already struggled with world number one Heather Fell suffering from a virus. That the Brits still managed to win a team silver medal is a miracle, and owes a lot to Fell's superb run-and-shoot to claw her way up to ninth place.
"I was watching Katy's round and I felt sick when I saw what happened to her," Fell told me.
Fell has already suggested the prospect of London 2012 may not be enough to keep her in the sport, and she said moments like Livingston's agonising fall add to her worries over whether to continue as a pentathlete.
"In the middle of the fencing I felt so ill that I was ready to retire right then and there," she joked.
"But watching Katy, it shows this sport is so up and down. You could train for three years and that could happen, or your electronic target could break down in the final."
After the final, the British pentathlon team therefore has one athlete who came within a whisker of the world title only for at best an error with the course, and at worst a judging debacle, to throw a spanner in the works.
And it has another who, having seen that happen, thinks giving up her position as number one in the world rankings and quitting the sport is an option.
To go home with that end product after a major event on home soil is appalling.
Celebrate the team silver medal all you like - and the performance of 19-year-old Freyja Prentice, in finishing 15th, is hugely promising for 2012 - but a competition that should be motivating our stars to push on for the London Games instead left Livingston calling it "a waste of a day".
Moreover, those moments of madness on the show jumping course have cost the organisers of British pentathlon a great deal.
With that accolade comes recognition and the possibility of increased sponsorship and finance, more resources, a stronger production line of future pentathletes, and most importantly the confidence to go out and reproduce the result next time.
Instead, the sport is even disappearing off the radar of its own top competitors.
It will be terrible if Fell decides she doesn't need three years of hard training for a day's uncertainty in the lap of the equine gods, because she's a top athlete and deserves better.
But I'm not sure I could blame her, and I'm not sure Katy Livingston would either.