The grand finale in Australia lies ahead. But five months before Melbourne the Olympic scene is set in Stockholm. Here, where the first Equestrian Olympics were held in 1912, horses and riders from some 30 countries meet (June 10-17) for the eighth renewal of the biggest international competition of its kind.
Before the punishing Three Day event, the skilled dressage tests and the spectacular Prix des Nations jumping, all teams will mass in the stadium for the opening ceremonies, rich in Olympic tradition and embellished by the cachet of royal attendance.
Glittering carriages with the King of Sweden and the Queen of England, followed by the Queen of Sweden and the Duke of Edinburgh will circle the stadium to the royal enclosure. Then, following the Olympic flag, will ride the contending equestrians. When the Games are inaugurated by Sweden's King, fanfares will sound from the towers, the Olympic hymn will be sung, the flag will go up, 1,000 carrier pigeons will be released and the Olympic salute will boom from outside the walls. One trusts the assembled horses will be unperturbed by all this. Then through the Marathon Gate will dash a horseman, halting to salute with raised torch, galloping down the field to light the Olympic flame.
First comes the Three Day event. For each of three days the same horse and rider will meet a different test. Day No. 1 is devoted to dressage of an intermediate type, less complicated than in the Grand Prix de Dressage later in the week.
The second day, the endurance phase, is the severest and most important, for it counts decisively in case of a tied score. Of the five sections making the endurance phase (which must be completed consecutively) the steeplechase and cross-country run are the most generous in points and most grueling for the horse—so much so that during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles a Japanese colonel, as a memorial plaque attested, turned aside from the prize to save his horse. He heard the low voice of mercy, not the loud acclaim of glory.
For the survivors—perhaps half of the original entry—the third day is given to show jumping in the stadium over an irregular and winding course, but with obstacles less formidable than in the Prix des Nations.
The United States has, in the past, done well in the Three Day, winning its only Equestrian Olympic gold medals for the team performance. While the individual awards went to other nations, the Army teams drawn from the U.S. Cavalry were victorious in 1932 and again in 1948. Now the Army teams are no more, but the team of U.S. private citizens managed to place third in Helsinki and has more ambitious hopes plus more experience for this Olympics (see color pictures). Sweden has won the team prizes most often and, although faced with the same problem of a mechanized cavalry, is expected to fight hard for first. Germany, silver medal winners in 1952, returns with substantially the same riders and horses, all of whom have campaigned with great success in Europe between Olympics. The Italians, who find the dressage principles contrary to their principles of horsemanship, will also admit to a lack of the patience necessary for this training. So although they are resigned to beginning on the second day without a chance of winning the event, they are sure they will not finish anywhere near last. Great Britain, eliminated from the competition in 1952, is now a team highly favored by many, including the Queen, who has lent one of her own horses, Countryman.
The Grand Prix de Dressage opens on the sixth day. Sweden, again, has been most successful in this event. Dressage, often confined in the United States to the circus or to an exhibition during a horse show, is more appreciated as an art and studied as a science in other countries. The required subtle unity, delicate balance and perfect control call for years of patient practice, and the fine lines of difference, rewarding to the initiated, are not immediately apparent to the casual observer who prefers the more hazardous and equally skilled performance of the show jumper. The best presentation, in the opinion of the judges, will win. Their evaluation is based on the flexibility and lightness of the horse as well as the position and influence of the rider throughout the performance.
Among favorites for the dressage's individual gold medal are Henri St. Cyr, Sweden's Helsinki winner, and Denmark's Liz Hartnel, the first woman to win an Equestrian Olympic medal. France's Colonel Jousseaume, an Olympic competitor since 1932, will again be present on Harpagon, who, however, is now around 20, a venerable age for a horse, and may lack his former polish and grace. Although women have been allowed to compete in the dressage phase since 1952, this year for the first time one has been chosen to compete in the Prix des Nations—for jumping, the third and most spectacular event of the Equestrian Olympics.
It is in no way surprising that Pat Smythe (see page 62), already immortalized at Madame Tussaud's London waxworks, should be chosen for the British show jumping team, winners of the 1952 Nations team award. The individual medal goes to the rider with the lowest total of penalty points. (In 1928 a Czech won with no faults, the only time this has been done.) Olympic scoring differs from the usual American procedure in that touches do not count while time does. The contest is always exciting, with big and wide obstacles studding an intricate and secret course.