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Olympic Games

Equestrian- Show Jumping History

Gold, silver, bronze? Not in 1932

The show jumping course at the Los Angeles Games was so difficult that medals weren't awarded, because no team even got through the course

Last Updated: Thursday, May 22, 2008 | 12:47 PM ET

Ake Hoek of Sweden and his horse clear a fence at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.  Ake Hoek of Sweden and his horse clear a fence at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. (IOC Olympic Museum/Getty Images)

Equestrian events have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome, where horses were used in chariot races, bareback races and the pentathlon event of the ancient Olympic Games.

Show jumping gets a bandwagon

But show jumping as we know it today evolved out of the fox-hunting traditions of mid-19th century England, and made use of natural objects — fences, ditches and walls — that dotted the British countryside. British cavalry officers considered jumping to be good training for their horses, and other European cavalries quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

Grand Prix-style show jumping first appeared in Paris in 1866 and spawned numerous international competitions. Equestrian events made their Olympic debut at the 1900 Games, and consisted of three individual events: jumping, equestrian high jump and equestrian long jump.

The high jump and the long jump were discontinued after that year, but jumping — which consisted of a leap over a single fence — caught on and expanded into what is now the most popular equestrian event. Team show jumping debuted in 1912 in Stockholm.

Military officers dominated Olympic jumping for the first 50 years. That tradition ended at the 1952 Helsinki Games when French civilian Pierre Jonqueres d'Oriola captured the individual gold medal. In 1956, Great Britain's Patricia Smythe became the first female medallist, when her team captured the bronze.

Degree of difficulty

Brutally difficult courses used to be a hallmark of the jumping competition. At the 1948 London Games, for example, Mexico won a surprise gold ahead of Spain and Great Britain simply because no other team finished. At the 1932 Los Angeles Games, no team medals were awarded at all, because no team had three riders finish.

Danish competitor Major Mikkelsen and his horse, St. Hans, run into a fence at the 1948 London Olympics. Danish competitor Major Mikkelsen and his horse, St. Hans, run into a fence at the 1948 London Olympics. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Japan's Lt. Takeichi Nishi won the individual gold in that year and was perhaps the most famous show jumper of his time, becoming a Hollywood darling and socializing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Nishi met his demise in the Second World War when he committed suicide rather than surrender at the battle of Iwo Jima.

Jumping Germans

By 1956, Germany had begun to make a name for itself in show jumping. The German team captured gold in 1956, 1960 and 1964, led by Hans Gunter Winkler, who won five gold medals, including a fourth team gold in 1972.

Between 1968 and 1988, Germany’s record was somewhat spotty, with one team gold in 1972, two team bronzes in 1968 and 1984, and one individual gold at the 1976 Games. It soon regained its stride, though, claiming the team gold in 1988, an individual gold in 1992, the individual and team gold medals in 1996, and the team gold in 2000.

Banned substances

The German team was initially awarded gold at the Athens Games in 2004, but the medal was revoked after Goldfever, a German horse, tested positive for a prohibited substance. Rider Ludger Beerbaum and Goldfever were disqualified from the team event and the points earned by a fourth German rider and horse were included in the team’s final tally, good enough to give the Germans the bronze medal. The United States won gold and Sweden won silver.

Beerbaum said the banned substance was contained in an ointment given to Goldfever to treat a skin irritation, and while the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) said it provided no competitive advantage to the horse, he was disqualified in accordance to the federation’s rules.

Ireland's Cian O'Connor had his gold medal revoked at the Athens Games after his horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for banned substances.  Ireland's Cian O'Connor had his gold medal revoked at the Athens Games after his horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for banned substances. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

The 2004 Summer Games also saw the individual show jumping gold medal revoked because of banned substances. Ireland’s Cian O’Connor, the country’s only medallist, was disqualified after his horse Waterford Crystal tested positive for prohibited substances.

O’Connor told the FEI judicial committee the substances found in Waterford Crystal’s system were administered by a veterinarian for therapeutic reasons well in advance of the Games.

The FEI concluded O’Connor did not deliberately attempt to affect the horse’s performance, but again, the gold medal was revoked according to FEI rules.

O’Connor handed back his gold medal, which was awarded to Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa, who had originally won silver.

Team Canada

Canada sent its first equestrian team to the Olympics in 1952, and has won two Olympic show jumping medals. The Canadian team — consisting of James Elder riding The Immigrant, James Day riding Canadian Club and Thomas Grayford riding Big Dee — won a gold medal at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Michel Vaillancourt won an individual silver medal at the 1976 Games in Montreal.

Canada is fielding three teams in Beijing, the first time a full Canadian squad will compete in equestrian in 12 years.

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