According to historical records, Mexico City’s rainy season should have ended around Oct. 15 in 1968. The Olympic equestrian events were scheduled for the end of the month, so on paper it seemed like they’d be in the clear.
But the equestrian competition was held about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City near the city of Valle de Bravo, which is known for heavy rainfall between October and March, and eventing cross-country day fell victim to the weather.
Thirteen nations contested the three-day event, held at the Avándaro Golf Club, which was situated in a beautiful valley with mountain streams.
Chronicle editor Alexander Mackay-Smith wrote in his Mexican Olympic Diary that Phase A was 6,000 meters, mostly uphill, Phase B was 3,600 meters, built on a sloping mountain meadow with 11 brush fences and one water jump, and Phase C was 10,320 meters over a winding and stony system of hilly roads.
Phase D, the cross-country, was 7,200 meters, and the optimum time was 16 minutes—a far cry from the 12 or so minutes of a five-star event today or the 10 minutes of the 2016 Olympic Games cross-country! In total, horses and riders would be traveling almost 17 miles over the golf course on endurance day. Mackay-Smith described the course as “medium difficulty,” to help less experienced nations have a safe experience.
Before the event, athletes and coaches worried about how the altitude would affect horses. Canadian and Russian riders trained their horses around 4,700 feet, which was the approximate altitude of the area, but in the end, the three teams that won medals had trained at sea level, so the conclusion was that a high level of fitness was the most important advantage.
After dressage, Russia led the team competition, followed by East Germany. The U.S. team (Michael Page on Foster, Kevin Freeman on Chalan, Mike Plumb on Plain Sailing and Jimmy Wofford on Kilkenny) was in sixth.
Mackay-Smith commented that meteorologists clearly didn’t check the climate of Avándaro, as it rained every afternoon during the eventing, and a cloudburst towards the end of endurance day wreaked havoc on the standings.
The course designer, Mario Becerril, who’d competed in the 1952 Games for Mexico, had included a stream and two tributary brooks. The fences using the brooks were unaffected by the rain but still caused their fair share of falls and refusals.
But four jumps used the main stream, which rose nearly four feet in about 20 minutes following the storm.
By the time Freeman headed out on course, rider 31 of 49, the water nearly covered the top rails of Fences 5 and 6, an in-and-out. Seven pairs fell there. Fence 14, a drop, had a boggy landing that caused two falls and three refusals.
But Fence 22 caused the most issues.
“The stream had to be jumped at one of its widest points,” said Mackay-Smith. “The sloping landing on the far side consisted of recent fill, which was far too soft when the competition started. Once the water rose, the revetted banks of the stream naturally became invisible, making a trap for horses floundering through the stream, which, of course, had widened to unjumpable proportions.”
The obstacle produced two refusals, eight falls and one elimination.
Fence 34 presented a similar problem, plus an additional revetted up-bank on the far side of the stream. “After the water rose, so many horses, not being able to see the submerged obstacles, fell and were carried downstream, that the technical delegate, Major Lawrence Rook, when the fourth horses of the teams started, moved the flags a bit downstream and stuck a row of brush in the water-covered mud some four feet in front of the invisible revetted up-bank, in order to encourage the horses to jump,” said Mackay-Smith. There were two falls and two eliminations there.
The final fence, 35, was similar, “except there was, in effect, a trough under the water, through which horses blundered as best they could,” according to Mackay-Smith.
“[Freeman] dragged horses out of the ditches on the cross-country,” Plumb recalled. “I fell at one of my water jumps where all you could see were flags. The water was so high you couldn’t see the jump. It was a mess.”
In those days, bonus points were awarded for speed, and teams that finished three of their four horses before the rain fell had a serious advantage.
Despite the treacherous going, 11 out of 12 teams finished, with 38 pairs completing endurance day. France’s Jean-Jacques Guyon was in gold medal position, Wofford in silver and Russia’s Pavel Deev in bronze.
The show jumping course had also flooded during the cloudburst, so the going was deep.
Deev went off course and was eliminated, thus eliminating his team. “As he jumped a fence in the wrong order the entire audience let out a groan of horror and sympathy. ‘Siberia for him,’ was heard on all sides,” Mackay-Smith reported.
Wofford suffered a fall in the show jumping when Kilkenny went right and he went left after a knockdown, but he completed and ended in sixth place.
In the end, Great Britain won gold, the U.S. team earned silver, and the Australian team took bronze.
Page earned individual bronze after missing out in Tokyo four years earlier. Guyon earned individual gold, and Major Derek Allhusen of Great Britain on Lochinvar earned silver.
The 2020 Olympic Games were supposed to begin on July 24 in Tokyo, but they’ve been postponed a year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. We’ll be highlighting memorable Olympic equestrian moments all this week and next.
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