With just days to go to the Tokyo Olympics, event rider Mike Bullen reminisces about his own Games experience, something he “wouldn’t have missed for anything”, says Kate Green
WHEN the Olympic eventing competition appears on our screens this month, one man will be viewing it from a particularly interesting perspective. Along with James Templer, Mike Bullen is the last man standing from the British team that contested the 1964 Tokyo Games. Some memories remain vivid, others more patchy – and no wonder, for he spent part of the competition unconscious.
It hardly needs saying that Olympic preparation has changed out of all recognition. The first thing Mike and Capt Templer decided to do on arrival at the eventing site at Karuizawa – a five-hour round trip from the Olympic village – was to explore a volcano, not an activity that would be at the top of the list for today’s team officials reporting to UK Sport.
“It was the backdrop to the cross-country, smoking away quietly, so we thought it would be a laugh to have a look inside,” recalls Mike, always a fount of funny stories. “It wasn’t the most sensible idea and we came down rather hastily.”
Another thing that might be different a pandemic later is the reception from locals.
“The one aspect typical of 1964 is that you were treated like a king or queen by the Japanese people,” recalls Mike. “The traffic lights stopped to let you through, people bowed. There was a vast tent for all the athletes, and by each flag you would find food typical of that country. It was the most exciting thing to have been part of.”
Much is being made of the extreme heat and humidity athletes are likely to encounter in a Tokyo summer, but the 1964 Games took place in October. It was more significant then that the cross-country footing was greyish-coloured chopped lava and, because it had rained a lot, there were several holes. Mike’s horse, Sea Breeze, got his feet stuck and couldn’t take off, resulting in “an awful fall”.
A telegram home read: “I retired after unhappy trip badly bruised shoulder but otherwise all right love Mike.” In fact, a broken shoulder and dislocated collarbone had left him with his arm “hanging down round my knees”, but a passing American doctor casually “spun it round in its socket, like a clock hand. I passed out, but when I came round, it was magically back in place.”
The British team was out of it (neither Japan nor Korea finished either, and the team medals went to Italy, the US and Germany) as only Richard Meade, eighth individually, and Ben Jones completed, but the Japanese awarded Mike a medal for bravery.
FOUR years earlier, Mike just missed out on a genuine medal when finishing fourth individually on Cottage Romance in Rome in 1960. Here, he was the “baby” of the fourth-placed team with Bertie Hill (22nd), Frank Weldon (25th) and Norman Arthur (did not complete).
“Frank patted me on the head and said: ‘Do your best – we don’t expect you to finish,’ which rather spurred me on.”
The cross-country course at Pratoni del Vivaro was hairy, to say the least, with only six of the 18 teams completing: “Halfway round you had to jump a fence with two dead Polish horses in the ditch,” he says. The course featured a notorious steep slide, which was also part of the 1995 open European Championship and the 1998 World Games courses.
“Once you’d started, you had to finish,” Mike recalls. “Where people did so much better was by riding downhill as normal in a more balanced position, rather than leaning right back and losing time. The Italians had been practising on these slides outside Rome, where they taught the officers to ride downhill fast.”
Victory in 1960 went to the Australians, who had been based with the Bullen family at Didmarton in Gloucestershire, near Badminton. At the Beaufort point-to-point, all the locals put their money on the versatile Laurie Morgan, because he’d won the Cheltenham Foxhunters, but they lost their shirts when he pulled up “out in the country”.
When the Aussies left, having swept the board at Badminton as well, they threw a party in Didmarton, which was so riotous the local policeman was spotted walking home with no trousers.
THERE is a wonderful painting in Mike and Sally Bullen’s Hampshire home, Borough Court; a collage of Cottage Romance at full stretch over a fence at Pratoni, surrounded by other leading names of the 1960s British equestrian scene, including David Broome on Sunsalve and dressage rider Jook Hall on Conversano Caprice, all against a backdrop of the Piazza di Siena.
It was painted by Mike’s artist mother Anne Bullen who, with her husband Jack, founded the Catherston Stud, later run by his sister Jennie Loriston-Clarke. The six Bullen children – Mike, 84, is the second eldest – lived a happy, wholesome Famous Five-like existence, as evoked by Anne’s evocative drawings of ponies and carefree children, first in Dorset, then in Didmarton, where she died, far too young, from cancer.
Mike, as did his late younger brother Charlie, won a riding scholarship to Millfield in Somerset, a school that is probably responsible for more latter-day Olympians than any other. However, it was an introduction by Major Faudel-Phillips, later the riding master at Millfield, to Col VDS Williams, then one of the most influential people in eventing, that proved the key factor.
Col Williams, whose wife, Brenda, competed in the dressage in Rome, was one of the altruistic major investors in a pool of horses that would be allocated to the most appropriate British team riders. You “rode what you were given” and could be jocked off at a moment’s notice, but Mike kept the ride on Cottage Romance, the best horse he ever sat on, and Sea Breeze – the pair were third and fourth at Badminton in 1961. He describes the latter as “a very clever horse”.
“Once, he jumped a fence that I didn’t realise had a concrete trough on the landing side, but he just changed legs and carried on,” Mike says. “Cross-country was like that in those days. At Harewood, my first big event, I jumped down a drop and over an entire picnic.”
After a brief army commission, Mike’s career took off on a serendipitous path. He sailed to Canada, in charge of a consignment of Welsh ponies, and then lived the cowboy life on the Duke of Windsor’s EP ranch in Alberta.
A month later, Col Kennedy decided to send his assistant, Sally, out there “to supervise”. It was, she says, “love on the ranch”. The Bullens have been married for six decades and Mike wears to this day the cowboy belt given to him by the uncle, Hank Bullen, whom he and Sally tracked down in Montana.
IT was also in Canada that he met James Peden of the eponymous horse transport company, of which Mike was to become a director (his son, Henry, has succeeded him). Peden Bloodstock has been the official appointed agent for all Olympic Games and many championships for more than four decades. It has provided Mike with endless anecdotes, from the time he had a submachine gun pointed in his back at the Kiev Europeans in 1973, to lorries festooned with telegraph wires in the narrow lanes to the rural cross-country course at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
The Bullens remained closely involved in eventing: Mike judged at top level and Sally ran Crookham Horse Trials for about 20 years, followed by a novice event at Borough Court. They have also been successful owners: Borough Pennyz, ridden for Italy by Vittoria Panizzon, was the best mare at London 2012. She now has a gorgeous chestnut colt foal – a week old on the day of our interview – by Jennie’s stallion, Timolin.
By 1968, Mike’s Olympic role was that of horse transporter – his sister, Jane (now Holderness-Roddam), was the family member riding, and the first woman to win a team gold medal in eventing. The cross-country there was flooded when a dam broke.
“I had to explain to Jane that when she got to the ‘water’ fence, to aim for the right-handed flag and swim,” he says.
The youngest Bullen, Sarah (“Pup”), was an actress, starring as Beth in International Velvet and doing her own riding scenes. In the film, a horse has to be put down after panicking on the plane but, Mike says, this is an extremely rare occurrence. He points out that, on the whole, horses travel very well, but observes that, particularly for this Games, “they do need to be fit before getting on the plane”.
This leads to his lament about the loss of the endurance factor of eventing – “why do away with roads and tracks, which were so important for keeping horses fit, as well as riders who would run alongside them?” – and he gloomily foresees a time when eventing’s place in the Olympic movement is in jeopardy.
He will be content to sit out Tokyo 2021 in front of the television, but says of his own participation, injuries and all, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
This exclusive feature is also available to read in 15 July issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
You may also be interested in…