Stockholm/Melbourne 1956


  • Participating nations: 29
  • Number of athletes: 158 (145 men - 13 women)
  • Time of year: July 10 - July 17
  • Number of events: 6


  • Participating nations: 67
  • Number of athletes: 3,184 (2,813 men - 371 women)
  • Time of year: November 22 - December 8
  • Number of events: 145

The Summer Olympics this year began in Stockholm! This was because the Australians had been forced to give up the equestrian sports due to the strict quarantine rules of the country. A fact that must have totally eluded the IOC members when they voted on Melbourne as the Host City for the 1956 Games. The SOC understood early on that Australia would experience difficulties with the equestrian sports, and therefore decided to bid for the equestrian part of the Games as early as in November of 1953.

It was then estimated that the arrangement would cost 690,000 crowns.
During the IOC session in May of 1954, Bo Ekelund sent the following telegraph from Athens:
“Chances of getting equestrian games look good, send more telegrams to the IOC from the government, the city, the SOC."

The day after, on May 13, the following telegram came in the afternoon:
“Stockholm won equestrian games please start organisation work. Bo, Gustaf."
In May of 1955, the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOC) explained to the IOC that Sweden was also willing to take over the modern pentathlon. That idea was never realized since modern pentathlon uses horses from the host country.

Landslide Victory for Stockholm

Before moving on to the Games in Melbourne, let´s stay in Stockholm and take a look at the Equestrian Games, which were decided between June 10-17 at the Olympic Stadium, now home to Olympic competitions for the second time.

When the IOC decided which city was going to get the Equestrian Games, Stockholm won by a large margin. Stockholm got 25 votes, Paris 10 and Rio de Janeiro 8.

Stockholm had two years to arrange the Games with no real support from the city or the national government. But the government was willing to offer a guaranteed amount of 200,000 to cover any deficits.

The Games were a huge success, from organizing, financial and sports points of view. The profit was 300,000 crowns and the Games had a turnover of nearly 2,500,000 crowns, compared to the budgeted 690,000 crowns.

In the dressage competition there were 36 participants from 17 countries, in the three-day -event there were 56 riders from 19 nations and in the horse jumping there were 66 riders from 24 nations. Never before had so many riders and nations gathered to take part in an equestrian competition.

The opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium was a grand event and was, and still is, talked about in riding circles as being quite extraordinary. The 29 nations rode into the Olympic Stadium, which was a magnificent view. The opening speech was given by Prince Bertil and the Games were declared opened by King Gustaf VI Adolf. In 1912, as Crown Prince, the king spoke in the same arena.

The Olympic oath was sworn by Henri St Cyr who had competed in his first Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 in the three-day-event. In 1948 in London he had taken fifth place in dressage, in 1952 in Helsinki he won the dressage and a few days later he would repeat that accomplishment at the Olympic Stadium.

In 1960 in Rome, St Cyr participated in his fifth and last Olympic Games, he then just missed the medal positions and took fourth place.

St Cyr´s victory did not lack in drama in the judgement sport of dressage. As usual, it was the International Equestrian Federation, FEI, who appointed the five judges. During the Equestrian Games in Stockholm they came from Belgium, Germany, Chile, Denmark and Sweden.

Judges Disagree

The judges´ assessments of the contestants were not exactly unanimous and in some cases they showed strong favoritism towards their “own" riders.

The Belgian judge, who didn´t have a Belgian rider in the competition ranked the French rider Jousseaume as number one, the German had fellow countrywoman Linsenhoff in first place and the Swede had St Cyr clearly in first place. The Chilean judge had both St Cyr and the Danish woman Hartel in a shared first place while the Danish judge ranked his own Hartel as number one.

The judges´ evaluations were, of course, the topic of many debates and caused two of the judges to be banned from international competitions after the Olympics.

In trying to find some justice and defending St Cyrs gold medal, it could be said that St Cyr and Hartel had the best overall scores, even though the critics said that St Cyr´s victory came from the fact that the Swedish judge had him as such an obvious favorite.

But, looking back, most would agree that St Cyr´s gold was well deserved. He was, without a doubt, the world´s best dressage rider during the 50´s.

The Swedish team gold, on the other hand, was never an issue. Gehnäll Persson could even have taken an individual bronze medal, if only the Chilean judge had judged him according to normal standards.

Dramatic Three-Day-Event

The three-day-event was dramatic for many reasons. This time, the gold went to the Swede Petrus Kastenman, which was a real sensation.

The cross-country ride is the part of the event that is supposed to carry the most weight and that was the case this time as well. The course, and particularly hurdle number 22, became much more difficult than anyone could have imagined, after a night of rain. When the course was inspected no one had any objections regarding hurdle 22, but the mud behind it caused a lot of problems and was the scene of many frightening accidents.

The most tragic accident happened to the Swede Johan Asker and his horse Iller. Iller got stuck in the mud behind the hurdle and it took almost half an hour to get the horse out. Iller then had to be put down on the scene. For the sport, this part of the event was a heavy burden for many years, and for the Swedish team it meant that they were out of the team competition.

But Petrus Kastenman had surprised everyone, including himself, and found himself in a position to take the gold with his horse Iluster before the last part of the three-day-event, the jumping, which took place in the Olympic Stadium.

The situation before the jumping was the following: Kastenman could afford to take down one hurdle even if both of his main opponents, Lütke-Westhues of West Germany and Frank Weldon of Great Britain, cleared all the obstacles.

Kastenman was the first of the three to ride the course. He knocked down two hurdles and it didn´t look bright at all for Sweden. But Kastenman and the audience in the Stadium could finally let out a sigh of relief. The German also knocked down two hurdles and Weldon had a perfect opportunity to win the gold. But his nerves were not up to the challenge and he did exactly what the two others had done. The gold medal went to Kastenman!

Difficult Jumping Course

The horse jumping was dramatic on a course that was exceptionally difficult, too difficult according to some and sufficiently difficult to be talked about to this day.

The gold medal went to Hans Günter Winkler of West Germany and his horse Halla. After the first round, Winkler was in the, he had four errors after having knocked down the last hurdle. The knock-down was a result of an injury Winkler had suffered on the second to last hurdle. Halla came too close to the hurdle and had to more or less jump from all four feet. In order to avoid a knock-down, she had to quickly curve her back, which pulled on of the muscles in Winkler´s groin and caused a great deal of pain. Halla was then unable to clear the last hurdle, since she was basically on her own. But would Winkler be able to ride the last round? His only chance was to get some kind of pain relief. It was a chance since the dose couldn´t be too big if he wanted to keep his head clear. At the same time the dose would have to be big enough to make the pain bearable.

It all worked out and Halla performed perfectly. The horse seemed to know that it was mostly up to her this time. The two made a perfect ride and the audience cheered in the Olympic Stadium.

The Swedish riders were unsuccessful on the difficult course. The best Swede was Anders Gernandt who came in 32nd place.

Late Summer Olympics

The Olympic Games in Melbourne took place very late in the year. The Games went on from November 22 until December 8, which naturally posed a problem for the athletes when trying to plan their season.

Before the Games in Melbourne it became clear early on that the limited grants carried with them a need for financial restrictions. The SOC also decided that the Olympic sports federations would not be allowed to send any athletes at their own expense. That was a rule that the SOC had to change immediately. In the end, one third of the 95 athletes and 31 team officials in Melbourne were paid for by the different sports federations.

The best known case was that of the rowers. They had been told that they had to place among the top three in the European Championships in order to qualify for Melbourne. They couldn´t meet this requirement, and the SOC firmly opposed their participation.

But the rowers had a sponsor, the ship owner Thordén, from Uddevalla. His money enabled them to go to Melbourne where they caused a sensation and took the silver medal in the four oars with coxswain and fourth place in the eight oars.

The Consequences of the Hungary Crisis

The Hungary crisis of 1956 had consequences for the Games, as did France, England and Israel´s attack on Egypt. The day after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, on November 5, the SOC decided that Sweden was going to take part in the Summer Olympics, but at the same time it extended a plea to the IOC that Hungary should be allowed to participate at the expense of the IOC. The team officials later made the final decision to participate on November 18, on location in the quarters in Melbourne. Prince Bertil, on the other hand, was forced to stay home due to the political situation.

Three nations decided not to participate in Melbourne because of the Soviet invasion, they were Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands. The attack on Egypt also led Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq to withdraw from the Games.

The Soviets were treated politely but coldly by their hosts. The water polo game between the Soviet Union and Hungary has become quite famous. The game became very rough, and looking back one can conclude that both teams were equally responsible for this development.
East and West Germany were, for the first time, represented by one team in Melbourne. The IOC president saw this as a big victory, not the least for himself and the Olympic movement, that they had been successful in achieving something the politicians had failed. The two states sent one combined Olympic team in 1960 and 1964 as well.

The Swedish team lived in the Olympic village of Heidelberg, which was located 15 kilometers from the main arena. Rowers and canoeists lived in their own village closer to their venues. This Olympic village was built to have room for 6,500 athletes and team officials. It turned out to be more than enough. The highest number of people to live in the village at any one time was 4,289 people.

The Injured Went Anyway

Sweden got off to a bad start when the European Champion in the high jump, “Benke" Nilsson, couldn´t even get past the qualifying height. It was because “Benke" had arrived in Australia with a rupture of a muscle in his hip. He couldn´t make a single practice jump and the injury didn´t heal in time for the day of the competition.

“Benke" was not the only injured athletics contestant to be sent to the other side of the planet by the Swedish athletics organization.

But Sweden still did fairly well in the high jump when Stig “Stickan" Pettersson jumped 2.06 meters in his Olympic debut and took fourth place.

Wrestling, which had been a Swedish gold mine since 1908, was a huge disappointment and resulted in only one silver medal and three bronze medals, all of them in the Graeco-Roman style.

The wrestling tournament was a tournament full of wangling, mostly because of the rules.
The story of the Swedish silver is a good example of this. Edvin Westerby in the bantamweight was in the following position before his final game against the Russian Vyrupajev:
If he lost the game on points he would get the bronze, but if he lost it by a fall he would get the silver!

When 30 seconds remained in the match, and Vesterby clearly had no chance of winning on points, he got his order from the side of the mat: “Hurry Edvin! Hurry, get on your back!"
Edvin heard the order and lost the game by a fall, thus securing the silver medal. It was perhaps not the right thing to do, but, the rules being what they were, there were naturally others who did the same thing. There were many more instances like this one.

Not Unexpected

But quite a distance outside of Melbourne Sweden did much better thanks to, not surprisingly, the canoeists and the yachtsmen.

At Lake Wendouree, Gert Fredriksson, now 37, took his fourth and fifth Olympic gold medals.
For a long time, Gert wasn´t sure he was going to enter both races because the 10,000 m race was the first on the program. But Gert took a chance and was able to win the 10,000 m race by a margin of ten seconds! He then went on to win the 1,000 m race by a margin of three seconds. Once again, Gert knew that he was the canoeing king of the world!

The yachtsmen competed in Port Philip Bay where Lasse Thörn was a favorite for the gold medal in his new 5.5. Lasse lived up to the high expectations and had secured the gold already before the final part of the competition!

In the dragon class, things were much more difficult for Folke Bohlin. It seemed like the gold medal was going to go to the Norwegian Ole Berntsen when there were two races left. Bohlin´s only chance of winning was two win the two remaining races. Berntsen had to fail to lose the gold. Bohlin seized the opportunity, he won the two last races and took home the gold by the narrowest margin possible.

Narrow Margins

The margins were also narrow for Lasse Hall in the modern pentathlon. He had to beat the odds just to qualify for the Olympics. Lasse missed the Swedish Championship title and took the third and final place on the modern pentathlon team.

Before the last event, the cross-country run, Lasse was in the lead, just ahead of the two Finns Mannonen and Korhonen and the American Lamber. All three of these competitors had beaten Lasse on the final event earlier in the year. So Lasses chances of becoming historic, by being the first person two win two Olympic gold medals in modern pentathlon, were not big. Normally, Lasse would have lost ground and ended up in fourth place.
More than once, Lasse showed how competitive he was. He accomplished the impossible and broke all kinds of boundaries to win the Olympic gold medal.

Lasse also received the “Bragdguldet" award, which is given out by one of the largest Swedish newspapers.

The most memorable event, along with the famous water polo game, is the running duel between the Russian Vladimir Kuts and the Briton Gordon Pirie. The British newspapers, which already at that time liked using war headlines when writing about sports, had named the fight between them, on the 5,000 m and 10,000 m, the “running match of the century".

Pirie was known as a runner with a strong spurt whereas Kuts´s strength was more even. During their first duel, the 10,000 meters, Pirie was almost nailed to Kuts´s back and made no attempts to go up in the lead and pull. Kuts then started running at an uneven speed, lap times varying between 64 and 73 seconds, making several attempts to lose the Briton. Kut even tried to step aside to let Pirie take the lead. But finally, Pirie had to give up. Kuts´s constant changes of pace had gotten to him. With two kilometers remaining, Pirie had to let go. Kuts won by seven seconds and Pirie fell behind, ending up in eighth place.

Criticized Briton

The British press had no mercy on Pirie after the run, and before running the 5,000 meters he put all his hopes for a gold medal aside and decided to go for the silver. Pirie got his silver on the 5,000 meters and Kuts won the gold by eleven seconds.

The Soviet Union was the best nation overall for the first time in Melbourne after having dominated the gymnastics and wrestling events. The United States fell behind after having failed miserably in the swimming events, which had earlier been dominated by the Americans. Instead, it was the host nation that dominated the swimming with its exceptionally young team. The average member on the Australian swim team was only a little over 17 years old.

The young Australian team contributed to making swimming a sport for the young. It also started the discussion on how young or old you should be when starting to train and compete at the élite level. It is an issue which is still discussed today.

Not Good Enough

The Swedish performance in Melbourne was not considered good enough by the SOC. During a board meeting after the Games the members reached the conclusion that the money given to the different sports associations for their preparation had not been used for that purpose, but had instead gone into the regular budget. There was a demand for clearer-cut rules.
Melbourne also turned out to be the last, but, hopefully, not the very last time Sweden ranked among the ten best nations in the Summer Games.
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