The night before the second day of dressage team competition at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, coach Harry Boldt instructed most of his West German team riders to turn in for an early bedtime. But not Reiner Klimke, who, as John Strassburger reported for The Chronicle of the Horse in his coverage of the event, was permitted to go out to dinner after promising he could score the needed mark to secure gold the next day.
“Klimke made up for any lost sleep by taking an hour-long nap before his test,” wrote Strassburger. “If he felt any pressure, he didn’t show it.”
Klimke, 48, the team’s anchor rider and one of Germany’s most experienced at the time, was mounted on Ahlerich, a 13-year-old Westphalian gelding (Angelo—Dodona, Donar). Though West Germany was strongly favored to win gold going into the Games, Klimke had to make up some ground after earlier team riders scored lower than expected.
“Because of the heat, I first had in mind to ride a sure test today and ride hard tomorrow [in the Grand Prix Special],” Klimke said after his Grand Prix test. “But my chef d’equipe and trainer told me to make a good impression for the team.”
“To say Klimke made a good impression is like saying Beethoven was a songwriter,” wrote Strassburger. “[He] nailed it. The sensitive Ahlerich’s eyes were wide when he entered the noisy stadium, but Klimke just kept working him. They proceeded to produce a lesson in dressage, a test that made you say, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to be.’ So smooth, so light, so active, right down to the last halt, which had to have been a 10. A horse can’t halt any squarer or stand any stiller.
“Klimke knew he had just won his fourth team gold as he left the ring to an appreciative roar from the 22,000 fans,” continued Strassburger. “ ‘I try to ride in dressage, so the spectators must look,’ the gray-haired and soft-spoken Klimke said after receiving a score of 1,797 (71.88 percent). ‘In this test, this was his best ever.’ ”
Klimke and Ahlerich went on to secure individual gold in the Grand Prix Special the next day, though with a test Klimke admitted showed less brilliance than their Grand Prix, with Klimke noting he had to “fight for it.”
“And perhaps that is what makes Klimke so skillful—he never seems to be fighting,” wrote Strassburger. “He looks calm, he looks determined, but it seems to happen without him doing anything. And the movements happen precisely where they should, the way they should. Klimke’s two tests were a joy to watch, and when he left the ring, the 27,662 fans cheered long and hard.”
But what nearly everyone still remembers from that day is what happened after that test. Klimke executed a victory lap that lives on today—going around the arena first with a series of perfectly executed one-handed one-tempis, and then moving into piaffe, passage and finally extended trot. Though Klimke often spoke of Ahlerich’s hot nature, the gelding remained perfectly relaxed even in the face of the mass of cheering fans.
“I would lie if I said I wasn’t happy,” said Klimke after winning his individual gold. “I may never have the chance again to ride such a super horse as Ahlerich.”
It was the first—and would be the last—individual Olympic gold medal for the famous German rider, though he had also earned team gold in 1964, 1968 and 1976.
At the 1988 Olympics, riding a 17-year-old Ahlerich, Klimke earned his last team gold Olympic medal. He died from a heart attack in August 1999 at 63, but his daughter, Ingrid Klimke, carried on the family legacy, winning team gold in eventing 20 years after her father’s final Olympic gold, at the 2008 Olympic Games (Hong Kong).
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.