When was the last time the U.S. came home empty-handed from the Olympics?
A: The year was 1956, and the venue was Stockholm. As we repeat history, are there lessons to be learned from the past?
Top photo: 1956 Stockholm Equestrian Games Opening Ceremony
1956 was a weird year for Olympic equestrian sports in general. The Games were officially held in Melbourne, Australia, in November (late spring in the southern hemisphere), but due to Australian quarantine regulations–at the time, Australia had a strict six-month pre-shipment quarantine requirement–the horsey events were held several months earlier (June 11-June 17) in an entirely different country (Sweden) on an different continent.
Another curious side-note: The athletes rode into the Opening Ceremonies on their competition mounts. (Can you imagine the circus that would ensue if we tried that again?). Some carried the nations’ flags; Germany’s Hans Gunter Winkler carried the Olympic Flame and lit the torch from horseback.
This was back in the day, remember, when a ladies’ place was in the kitchen or behind a vacuum cleaner–not on the back of a horse, racing at top speed over solid obstacles. Although there were 13 women participating in the dressage and show jumping competitions, women weren’t yet permitted to compete in Olympic eventing, which went by the name of “Men’s Three-Day Event.” As such, the U.S. team consisted of Frank Duffy, age 19; Walter Stanley, age 23; and Jonathan Burton, age 36.
What went wrong? I couldn’t get a line on the specifics, although the Official Olympic Review indicates that the U.S. did not finish its team.
I did, however, find this telling if vague excerpt from Lisa Slade’s fascinating COTH article “The Chronicle Over the Decades: 1950s“: “A report from the Three Day Event at the 1956 Olympics, written by Lt.-Col. C.E.G. Hope, stated that, ‘The Americans are young and their horses are good, but they seem unorganized and unschooled. If they could obtain the services of a good European dressage instructor and work hard under him, they could produce a reasonable team. But for every country the lesson of the Olympics is that inefficiency does not pay—and is unfair to the horse.”
The U.S. Show Jumping team fared a little better, finishing in 5th despite the fact that it was comprised of riders we now consider legends of the sport: Frank Chapot, age 24; Hugh Wiley, age 27; and Bill Steinkraus, age 30. The individual gold was won by Germany’s Hans Gunter Winkler aboard the great Halla, despite the fact that Hans pulled his groin in the very first round.
Hans winning gold:
The 1956 competition nearly spelled the end of Olympic dressage, thanks to blatantly biased scoring from German and Swedish judges. There was additional controversy as the judging definitely favored the German rather than the French school. A prominent sports newspaper, L’Equipe, also complained that two days of dressage competition “was excessive and one grows tired of overdone testing.” The IOC threatened to remove dressage from the Olympics, and as a compromise, there was no team dressage competition at the 1960 games.
The U.S. team was represented by 26-year-old Elaine Watt and 43-year-old Bob Borg, who finished in 30th and 17th places respectively. (Bob doubled as the coach of the event team.)
In terms of quality of performance, it seems reasonable to think that the U.S.’s out-of-stepness with Europe had a great deal to do with the insular nature of the team’s training–the west was simply getting left behind, a criticism that may still be relevant today. In her COTH article, Lisa quoted Hermann Friedlaender’s report from the 1959 Pan Am Games: “Only very few horses of the ten shown performed the Piaffe and Passage in an acceptable manner, if they performed them at all.”
One last snapshot of Olympic dressage drama, from the Review: “Mrs. Lilian Williams, English horsewoman (dressage) was indignant when on the official programme on sale in the Stadium her age was revealed as being 61!”) How rude.
What can we conclude from this recounting of the 1956 games?
Once again borrowing from Lisa’s COTH article, “The less-than optimal showing from the U.S. contingency in 1956 (teams and individuals finished out of the medals in all three sports) inspired much discussion about the future direction of the U.S. Equestrian Team.
“An editorial in the Sept. 28, 1956 issue highlighted those issues, stating, ‘Although the meeting fully recognized the importance of good coaching, primary emphasis was placed on broadening the base on which our teams rest. In the long run, we cannot expect to win Olympic medals by developing a handful of horses and riders.'”
And perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that things can only go up from here. In the 1960 games, the U.S. show jumping team rebounded to win silver, and the event team followed suit in 1964.
A special thanks to The Chronicle of the Horse for documenting so much of what we know about the history of horse sports in America. I encourage everyone to go back and read the wonderful series “The Chronicle Over the Decades” that we have referenced in this article.
This article does not purport to be exhaustive, being the product of a single afternoon’s worth of research. Readers: If you are able to fill in any of the blanks about the specifics of the Stockholm Games, feel free to email me at [email protected] or leave info in the comments section below!
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