If you think eventers are crazy now, you should have seen ’em 77 years ago. Today we recount the fiasco that was the 1936 Olympic three-day event.
Top: 1936 Olympic three-day team and individual gold medalist, Captain Stubbendorf (Germany), clears the difficult fascine ditch on Nurmi. Photo: IOC
Everyone knows that eventing has its roots in the cavalry. What you might not realize is that the cavalry was COMPLETELY INSANE.
Yesterday I got to rooting around online for vintage photos of cavalrymen engaging in various acts of ridiculousness for a Horse Nation post. I stumbled upon images of horses jumping jeeps, people, other horses and even–wait for it–a house.
From “Riding Forward: Modern Horsemanship for Beginners” written in 1934 by Vladimir Littauer, Captain, 1st Hussars, Russian Imperial Cavalry. Photo: imh.org
If you want to see the full collection of photos, check out the post here. But today, I wanted to share a historic gem I stumbled upon that pertains to eventing in particular.
Namely, the story of THE WORST OLYMPICS EVER.
The year was 1936, and the Games were being held in Berlin. Here’s a synopsis of the event’s narrative, as compiled from the official IOC report.
First things first, the dressage test, a 13-minute exhibition of various paces and figures such as the “zigzag.” In particular, I appreciated the first movement: “Enter at the gallop.”
Captain Lippert (Germany) on Fasan. Photo: IOC
The real trouble began during the cross-country competition, a five-phase test that spanned 36 km (22 miles) with a time limit of just over two hours.
The course, which took two years to construct, contained many “new and unusual kinds of jumps,” including steep ravines, massive barriers, vast ditches and… fence #4, the WORLD’S FIRST OFFICIAL WATER JUMP.
Nobody saw this coming.
Many riders, not knowing how to approach such a jump, ran at it full-tilt, clearing the hurdle only to succumb to the drag of three-foot deep water and treacherously boggy footing on the other side. According to the event report, of 46 horses who jumped into the pond there were 18 horse/rider falls and 10 rider falls.
Video: Competitors negotiating the pond with varying degrees of success.
Later the fairness of the obstacle was called into question. Some claimed the competition was rigged, that the Germans had known such a jump would be on the course and thus claimed an advantage.
Home-team advantage speculation wasn’t limited to three-day eventing, as the Germans claimed all individual and team medals in straight show jumping and dressage as well. It might be observed that Germany wasn’t exactly in its “ethical prime” during this era, on several fronts.
Anyway, the officials rebutted, “In Olympic tests, above all, horses and riders should prove that they can overcome any difficulty.” They pointed out that “several other obstacles had much more influence in determining the final results or causing the elimination of horses,” citing the obstacle immediately after the pond, a ditch where 10 horses were eliminated, as an example.
(Later that year, however, the FEI ruled “to bar jumps over hurdles into ponds in international three-day-events because these obstacles might cause too many accidents”–a decision that, of course, has since been reversed.)
At the end of the day, 27 out of 50 entries completed the course. Three horses were fatally injured, and two horses were unable to finish on account of lameness.
Out of all this chaos, a few narratives of glory emerged. One of them was the story of Jenny Camp, the great American event mare ridden by Col. Earl F. “Tommy” Thomson, who posted relatively few jumping faults (40 on cross-country and 10 in show jumping) to bring home the individual silver medal.
The event report spared few words for non-German competitors but had this to say of Jenny Camp: “It was a delight to watch this eager yet careful horse work. Her rider, the American, Captain Thomson, is the prototype of a splendid military rider, with a brave heart and clear judgment.”
Captain Thomson (USA) and Jenny Camp take the 35th obstacle of the cross-country competition. Photo: IOC
But my personal favorite story of the Berlin Olympics is that of Kurfürst, ridden by Lieutenant Freiherr v. Wangenheim (Germany).
After placing 46th after dressage (the IOC report reads, “For reasons which could not be exactly determined, Kurfürst became somewhat confused during the dressage test with the result that some of his figures were failures”), horse and rider set off for cross-country.
Like so many before, Kurfürst fell at the pond. Although the horse waded into the middle and for several moments refused to be caught, Wangenheim eventually remounted and, despite a broken collarbone, finished the course without interruption.
Unfazed by the previous day’s disaster, and with Wangenheim’s injury immobilized in a sling, the pair prepared to tackle the final jumping test. The goal: to finish the course so that the German group would remain complete and eligible for a medal.
Things were going well… until the in-and-out. Kurfürst, who was said to be “fresher and more enterprising than ever,” made a rush for the second fence. His rider hauled back on the reins, causing Kurfürst to rear and fall over backwards against the jump wing, momentarily pinning Wangenheim beneath him.
No one recounts the drama of what happened next better that the IOC report itself:
“The rider quickly crawled out from under the horse. Kurfürst, however, lay as if he were dead. There was breathless silence in the Stadium. Then Kurfürst leapt to his feet as if he had awakened. His rider mounted him without help. From this point to the end he made no further faults. Despite Kurfürst’s 310 penalty points on the cross-country stretch, the German riders had also won the team competition. No pen can describe the impression made when over one hundred thousand enthusiastic human beings give vent to their delight.”
All of which is to say, even before there was red on right and white on left, there was always insanity in the middle.
Lieutenant von Wangenheim (Germany) broke his collarbone at the pond, then fell again in show jumping, but completed the event to enable Germany to win a team gold. Photo: IOC