In modern times, the Olympics have indulged some downright strange competitions, many seem more appropriate of picnics and county fairs than a sporting event showcasing the world’s most elite athletes.
When I was a kid, we used to do this in the neighbor’s pool oblivious that it was once a heralded Olympic event – the Distance Plunge. Introduced (and immediately abandoned) Distance Plunge was an event in 1904, Paris. Athletes dove into a pool then coasted underwater without moving (we neighborhood kids called it “torpedoing”). After 60 seconds of submersion a referee would then measure the distance drifted. The longest drift won.
Other odd competitions included eight-man tug-o-war, live pigeon shooting (PETA alert!), climbing up a rope (scored on speed AND style), croquet and dueling pistols. Dueling “athletes” didn’t actually shoot at one another but rather plaster figures dressed in dueling frocks (which begs the question – what’s a “dueling frock”?). We may mock these strange competitions – wonder “what were they thinking”. Sadly, as horse loving equestrians, we are not without our own failed Olympic events.
Long Jump was a featured event during the 1900 Paris Olympics. The goal was simply to show the distance a horse could jump. Belgium won the one gold medal when the horse, Extra Dry, jumped 6.10 meters. Impressed? Don’t be. USA’s Alvin Kraenzlein won the human long jump with 7.185 meters. BAM!
Polo was introduced as an Olympic event in 1908. There was not a lot of competition. In fact, there were only 3 teams and they were all from Great Britain. Guess who won Gold? Silver? Bronze? In 1920 the competition was a bit more challenging, comprising 4 nations, no surprise that Great Britain took the gold again. The last Olympics to feature polo were in 1924 and 1936 with Argentina taking the gold both times.
Equestrian skijoring was a demonstration event at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Conditions were unfortunate, the first few days found the entire Olympic venue blasted by blizzard. The skijoring venue was a frozen lake, athletes donned skis then held onto a tow rope and were pulled around a flat course by a galloping horse. Unlike modern skijoring there were no riders on the horses, there were no jumps on the course, all the athletes competed simultaneously, like a race. The event was swept by three Swiss athletes.
Vaulting or Figure Riding, was an Olympic competition just once in 1920 at the Antwerp games in Belgium. Movements were performed at the canter and halt, with a saddle and bareback by men (women were not allowed to compete for 3 more decades). There were several phases; jumping on, jumping off and jumping over a standing horse’s back (this sounds suspiciously like gymnastics’ pommel horse competition). The final phase was to actually ride a walking horse. Three nations sent teams totally 18 athletes, all army officers. Belgium took the well-deserved gold medal.
Yes, the Olympics have featured some odd events. A hundred years from now, someone will likely mock an event from our modern Olympics. That’s ok. For us horse lovers we will simply lobby for more equestrian events of any nature!