The Olympics in adversity: how past Games have been affected by world events, from wars to boycotts

  • With the 2020 Games postponed a year by the coronavirus pandemic, Pippa Roome looks back on other Olympics that have been affected by world events, from wars and boycotts to terrorism

    The Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year by Covid-19, is the first to be postponed in the history of the modern Games, but several other Olympics have been affected by wider world events.

    Forty years ago, some 50 nations followed the US lead to boycott the Moscow Games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The equestrian events drew riders from just 11 countries and “alternative Olympics” in all three disciplines had a much stronger field than the real Games.

    Italy’s Federico Roman took the individual eventing gold and team silver in Moscow. “There were fewer competitors than normal, but it was tough psychologically,” says Federico, who was also ninth at the fully attended 1976 Games. “For the last month and a half before the Games, we needed to prepare ourselves and our horses for competition, but we were surrounded by the political problem.

    “Our government said no to participation, but the Olympic committee said yes, but our federation said no. The Olympic committee said the federation had to let the athletes decide and they said we could go – but without our horses as they belonged to the federation. But the Olympic committee said the horses had been bought with money given by them.

    “The federation didn’t help with anything and I became the chef d’équipe as well as a rider because I was the oldest. In the end, it was fun and we were lucky we were able to go and have this result.”

    Federico’s mount was his partner of only a year or so, the eight-year-old Rossinian. “He was a little horse, yet very tough. He wasn’t the biggest mover, but he was the boldest horse and very generous, with endless stamina,” remembers Federico, who survived a dicey moment when he slipped on the mud and lost the reins briefly when running beside the horse on the roads and tracks.

    In the dressage, Austria’s Sissy Max-Theurer landed gold in Moscow, while the alternative event happened at Goodwood. Sissy was in a different class to many of the other 14 competitors – judge Jytte Lemkow recalled awarding eight of the 14 below 40%.

    “I have always had the opinion that one shouldn’t mix up politics with sport. Generally sport should have the function to bring people together,” said Sissy in an interview with Eurodressage in 1995. “To me it was clear that I wanted to start at the Olympic Games because I had won gold with Mon Cherie at the 1979 European Championships… At age 10, Mon Cherie was in absolute top form and I didn’t know if I would get the chance to take part in an Olympic Games again.”

    Ex-Formula One driver Niki Lauda flew Mon Cherie to Moscow, “in a self-built container with one of his planes, even though it was a work of millimetres to load Mon Cherie on to this comparatively small plane”, recalled Sissy.

    ‘No giveaway’

    The alternative jumping competition was held at Rotterdam, where John Whitaker took team and individual silver on Ryan’s Son.

    “We felt we had achieved something – we were against all the best riders, so it was no giveaway, but it’s a pity it wasn’t a proper Olympics,” says John, adding the first-round course was one of the toughest he remembers.

    “At least three good horses including Jappeloup came out, having tipped up in the triple combination – it was a wall, two strides to a triple bar, then one stride to an oxer. A few horses took off in one stride to the triple bar and crashed. Thomas Fuchs came out of the ring carrying his bridle.

    “Ronnie Massarella was our chef d’équipe and he always gave you confidence. But on this occasion, he said to our first rider, Nick Skelton, that he didn’t have to go if he didn’t want to – that it looked dangerous and he didn’t want him to go hurt himself.

    “Nick said he must be joking, went in and jumped clear, which got us off to a flying start.”

    American Jim Wofford, who took individual silver at the alternative eventing Olympics in Fontainebleau, France, on Carawich, had a feeling of “unfinished business” about the Olympics – he had taken two team silvers, but had lost individual silver in Mexico in 1968 when Kilkenny slipped on a turn and fell in the showjumping. He heard that the boycott was going through via the television news.

    “To be off in the wasteland for six years riding horses that were almost good enough, then to be given this marvellous creature to ride, to go so well at the World Games in 1978 and Badminton 1979 and then this – it was a real shock and disappointment,” he says.

    By the time of their final trial, the US riders believed they were being selected for honour alone; the news of the alternative Games came a few weeks later.

    The accreditation system at Fontainebleau was rudimentary, remembers Jim. One of the US owners cleaned out the local hardware store and replicated the ball and chain armbands so the team had “passes galore”.

    The cross-country course was long and tough, and Jim was worried because the usually strong Carawich had not picked up the bridle on the roads and tracks, but his concerns were dispelled as he was given a leg-up to start.

    “The horse cleared the vet box, running sideways, yanking the lead-rein out of the groom’s hand,” remembers Jim. “I was almost laughing going to the first fence as I realised he’d learnt to save himself for cross-country.”

    It was a “hair-raising” round, with Carawich “careering” around Fontainebleau’s tight turns. “I missed a 180-degree turn at the top of a hill and went off through the crowd-control barriers,” says Jim. “After 100 yards, I turned and came back out on the trail still galloping. I heard this ‘brrr’ behind me and every time the horse would accelerate – I had about 100 feet of tape wrapped round his hindleg. I couldn’t pull him up and I wasn’t willing to give up the time, so I had to hope it would break off.”

    Jim’s team-mate Torrance Watkins took the individual bronze – had Fontainebleau been a real Olympics, she’d have been the first lady to win an individual Olympic eventing medal.

    Under the shadow of politics

    Olympics this century have also been affected by the two World Wars.

    The 1916 Games were cancelled due to World War I. There were doubts over whether the 1920 Games would go ahead, but in April 1919 the International Olympic Committee accepted Antwerp’s offer to host the event. This was the first and last time vaulting was included in the Olympics, and the Swiss were stopped from competing at the last minute by their government due to an alleged outbreak of foot-and mouth in Belgium.

    The 1936 Olympics in Berlin took place under the shadow of politics, with Hitler trying to use the Games to prove his theories about Aryan racial superiority. The Japanese 1932 showjumping champion, Takeichi Nishi, was suspected of intentionally falling – which meant a German victory – so as not to antagonise Hitler and compromise talks between his nation and the Third Reich.

    The following two renewals of the Games were cancelled by World War II, but London – which had been chosen to hold the 1944 Olympics before the war – hosted in 1948.

    The British capital was still bomb damaged and many felt the Games were a waste of money in a nation trying to rebuild – it did, eventually, make a profit – and everything was done on a tiny budget, in less than two years.

    German prisoners of war were roped in to build the Olympic Way up to the Empire Stadium at Wembley, where greyhound racing continued until a fortnight before the Games. The showjumping happened here, as well as the ceremonies, athletics and football.

    One visitor to the stables behind the stadium was Captain Xavier Bizard of France, who had competed in the King George V Gold Cup in 1937 on Honduras. He had assumed the horse dead after the Germans captured Saumur, where Honduras was living at the national cavalry school. But Capt Bizard found him, renamed Nippy, in the US stables in London – he had been liberated in 1945. When the horse’s former rider revealed the horse’s advanced age, he was withdrawn.

    Athletes were housed in RAF camps, schools and colleges, and provided with bed linen but expected to bring their own towels. The dressage, eventing and pentathlon competitors – competing in Aldershot, including elements at Tweseldown – stayed at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst with grooms in barracks near the horses.

    The British had difficulty training on a rationed 2,600 calories a day. Once selected, their intake was increased by half so they received the same ration as a coalminer, and many received food parcels from around the world. Three meals a day were provided in the athletes’ hostels, but many teams brought their own chefs, food and wine, much of which was shared, with good-natured bartering.

    Janie Hampton sums up in The Austerity Olympics, “the 1948 Games were a true celebration of victory after dark times and one of the most inexpensive and unpretentious Olympiads of the 20th century”.

    In deference to the reduced training time, the 1948 dressage test was cut down to 13 minutes from 17 in 1936, with passage and piaffe taken out. The judging panel was taken from five to three, which may have denied the US’s Robert Borg an individual medal when nationalistic judging kicked in.

    With the high death toll of the war so recent, fewer riders were available than usual and several diversified. The US’s Earl Foster Thompson scooped eventing team gold – after medals in 1932 and 1936 – and took up dressage, contributing to team silver.

    Mexico’s Humberto Mariles Cortés took double gold in the jumping and team bronze in eventing – all on the same horse, Arete. Rebellious Humberto repeatedly defied his army superiors and after his Olympic career was over, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for homicide. Later, he was arrested in Paris and died in mysterious circumstances.

    A favourite story of the 1948 Games concerns the Swedish dressage team’s Gehnäll Persson. The equestrian events were only open to commissioned officers and Gehnäll had been temporarily promoted from sergeant – a non-commissioned officer – to second lieutenant three weeks earlier. Apparently his sergeant’s cap was spotted by an official and, with Gehnäll’s demotion after the Games not helping the cause, the FEI stripped Sweden of its team gold medal in 1949. To avoid such problems, non-commissioned officers and soldiers were eligible for the 1952 Games – and women, but only in the dressage.

    Terrorism at the Games

    • At the 1972 Olympics, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village on 5 September, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine others hostage. In a battle at Munich airport that evening, all the hostages, five terrorists and a West German policeman were killed. Competition was suspended for 24 hours, including the dressage, and memorial services held. “Everybody was just sad,” recalled US eventing coach Jack Le Goff, who died in 2009, in an interview for Jennifer O Bryant’s Olympic history book. “It was just terrible.” Jack added that the event had an impact on the following Games in Montreal too: “You had the feeling you were entering an army camp there. There were police and machine guns everywhere.”
    • One person was killed in a bomb attack at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, while a cameraman died of a heart attack as he rushed to the scene. The Spanish reserve dressage rider Luis Lucio, whose horse Fortuin was stabled three hours from the equestrian venue, was nominated as the guinea pig the night before the competition. But the disruption resulting from the terrorist attack meant Fortuin became stuck in traffic and the competition was delayed. Eventually, Luis rode the test and beat his personal best by two marks. “Chef d’équipe Ronnie Massarella always gave you confidence. But he said to our first rider, Nick Skelton, that he didn’t have to go if he didn’t want to – that it looked dangerous”


    • An Illustrated History of Equestrian Sports, by Marie de Pellegars-Malhortie and Benoît Capdebarthes
    • The Austerity Olympics, by Janie Hampton
    • An Affair to Remember: the 1980 Olympic Games – Three Perspectives, online at Eurodressage.com
    • FEI history hub online
    • Equestrian Sport at the Olympic Games, by Max E Ammann
    • The Games: Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic Journey to London 2012, by Brendan Gallagher
    • Olympic Equestrian: A Century of International Horse Sport, by Jennifer O Bryant
    • Equestrian Olympic Games: Ancient and Modern, by E Schmit-Jensen
    • International Three-Day Event Results & Record from 1912, by Rhydian Wynn-Williams

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020