For 21st century fans accustomed to regarding seven-time Olympian Mark Todd as an elder statesman, it might be hard to believe that no New Zealand rider had finished in the top 20 at any Olympic Games before Todd and the small but mighty Charisma won individual gold in 1984. Their repeat performance four years later secured their place in history and brought hard-earned recognition to the island nation’s equestrian team.
Current fans marvel at La Biosthetique-Sam FBW’s back-to-back individual gold medals with Michael Jung in 2012 and 2016, but it was the odd couple of 6’3” Todd and barely 15.3-hand Charisma who got it done back in the long-format days, in the scorching temperatures of Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea.
There was little expectation of a historic finish when the duo arrived in Los Angeles for the 1984 Games. A former dairy farmer, Todd had paired up with Charisma (Tira Mink—Planet, Kiritea) just a year earlier when his top horse was sidelined. “Podge,” as Charisma was known in the barn, had been an agreeable, athletic jack-of-all-trades: He’d previously competed as a show jumper, evented through the equivalent of intermediate level and shown at Prix St. Georges.
With Todd on board, though, Charisma began a remarkable career that dominated the 1980s eventing scene. Mostly Thoroughbred with 1/32nd Percheron blood, he and Todd won their first horse trials together and went on to secure the one-day and three-day New Zealand national championships in 1983, both on their dressage score. That season earned them a trip to Great Britain to train with the Kiwi team.
By the time Charisma and Todd placed second at the Badminton Horse Trials (England) in the spring of 1984, they were attracting attention for their consistent finishes. They displayed that form again in Los Angeles, standing fourth after dressage and going clear in both jumping phases.
“Podge pulled like anything,” wrote Todd in his autobiography “Second Chance.” “He would tuck his head in like a bull and charge, and there was little one could do except pray he wouldn’t make a mistake. Unsurprisingly, he had the fastest cross-country round of the day and, despite the boiling temperatures, finished easily inside the time.”
The top of the podium wasn’t guaranteed, though, until the final moments of show jumping. Unfortunately for the American home team, leaders Ben Arthur and Karen Stives dropped a rail at the next-to-last fence to give Charisma and Todd the individual gold and New Zealand’s first equestrian medal.
“I thought there was no way [Ben Arthur and Stives] would have a fence down,” wrote Todd in his autobiography. “While she was in the ring someone gave me a cigarette, so I was puffing away, standing on my own, unable to watch. Karen’s round seemed to be going on forever, so I walked up the chute to have a look and, as I did so, she came into that last combination and had part of it down. I just put my hands to my face and gasped. It was very hard to take in, the fact that I’d won an Olympic gold medal, and even now, sometimes I have to remind myself that it actually happened.”
After this triumph in Los Angeles, owner Fran Clark tried to sell the horse. British rider Lizzie Purbrick knew Todd wanted to keep the ride, so she helped broker a secret deal where Todd’s sponsor Woolrest transferred money into her account, and she then sent the money to Clark so Todd could continue his partnership with Podge.
The acquisition paid off as the pair finished second again at Badminton in 1985 and won at Luhmuhlen (Germany) the following year. Another shot at the Olympic team came into focus after Charisma placed second at the Burghley Horse Trials (England) and won the British open championship in 1987.
Despite these impressive performances, some doubters still wondered whether Charisma, at 16, would be able to medal again in South Korea. No horse had earned back-to-back individual gold medals in eventing since the Netherlands’ Marcroix with Lt. Charles F. Pahud de Mortanges in 1928 and 1932. Commentators questioned the suitability of a small gelding to carry the very tall Todd, who reportedly joked he had to shorten his stirrups to be sure his own feet wouldn’t hit the jumps.
Todd arrived in Seoul determined to prove that his previous win hadn’t been beginner’s luck. Despite the sweltering heat, he guided Charisma to a first-placed dressage test, one of just four scored below 50%.
Endurance day, however, promised to be challenging. The formidable course wound over sandy, tiring footing in the Demilitarized Zone near the North Korean border. The ground jury ordered some fences lowered and removed a bounce element near the finish, but many combinations were overfaced. U.S. riders had a total of five falls, and even with remounting to continue allowed at the time, they failed to finish a team.
Charisma and Todd made the course look easy. They not only finished without jumping penalties (the only other clear trip being fellow Kiwis Tinks Pottinger and Volunteer), but also came home 19 seconds under the time.
That performance carried them into the final day with three rails in hand ahead of Great Britain’s Ian Stark and Sir Wattie. Known for rubbing poles, Charisma pulled one early rail, but as he headed for the final in-and-out with no additional faults, the crowd cheered his imminent repeat victory.
“Groom Helen Gifford, who’s been with Charisma since he left New Zealand for England in 1984, held him lovingly as tears streamed down her face,” wrote John Strassburger in his Chronicle coverage from Oct. 14, 1988. “A crowd gathered to admire and photograph the 16-year-old superstar, and at intervals someone would come along to pat Charisma or hug Gifford.
“The remarkable thing was that no one was talking, and no one was leaving,” Strassburger continued. “Everyone was taking a last long look at Charisma. It was a happy moment because of his enthusiastic victory, but it was also a sad moment because it was his last.”
An outstanding dressage test and a double clear cross-country round gave Charisma and Mark Todd all the breathing room they needed to win their second individual Olympic gold medal in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.
“I came here knowing the horse was in very good form,” Todd told the Chronicle at the time. “But he hadn’t done a three-day event in nearly a year, and at his age, I wasn’t sure how well he would cope. But he just rose to the occasion and was fantastic right throughout. He’s a wonderful little horse, and he deserved it.”
The win also helped New Zealand take bronze, its first Olympic equestrian team medal. Todd became an international celebrity and even received a congratulatory letter from the widow of the Dutch rider who had won back-to-back gold medals more than 50 years earlier.
With nothing left to prove, Charisma was retired from competition, but he toured New Zealand for months as a national hero. In 2003, he was euthanized following a pasture accident at age 30.
Todd returned to the podium in Barcelona (Spain) in 1992 as part of New Zealand’s silver medal-winning eventing team. At the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, he also competed as a member of the show jumping squad. He won an individual bronze in eventing in 2000 and a team bronze in 2012.
After retiring from eventing for eight years to pursue training race horses, Todd returned to the saddle in 2008 before announcing his final retirement last year. By that time, he had already been named the FEI’s Horseman of the Century, an honor Charisma, more than any other mount, helped him achieve.
The 2020 Olympic Games were supposed to begin on July 24 in Tokyo, but they’ve been postponed a full year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Chronicle is highlighting memorable Olympic equestrian moments this week.