Philip Barker

Sixty years ago, the city of Melbourne was making ready for the Olympics. It was the first time they had been staged in the Southern Hemisphere, but this sporting gathering did not include equestrian events.

Instead the world’s top riders met in the Swedish capital Stockholm. It was the only time that a single celebration of the Olympic Games has been hosted on separate continents.

Melbourne had been awarded the 1956 Olympics at the 1949 International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Rome, but when Avery Brundage became IOC President in 1952, he was alarmed by the lack of progress and told the organisers so in no uncertain terms.

Bill Barry of the Melbourne City Council later responded: "Should they be withheld from Melbourne, a very serious moral injury would be inflicted to this country."

Gradually, plans were finalised including venues for the equestrian events. Dressage was to be at the Melbourne Show grounds in Flemington. Eventing was to be held across open country.

Australian IOC member Hugh Weir also had a warning for his colleagues. "Certain proposals have been submitted to the health authorities, with a view to special quarantine arrangements, under which it will be possible to bring horses into Australia, for the Equestrian events. These proposals are at present being examined, and we are hopeful that suitable arrangements will be evolved."

Despite lengthy negotiations behind the scenes, no "suitable arrangements" were forthcoming and a move from Melbourne was recommended. 

IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer, never short of an opinion, said it was "another black mark against Australia". 

Veteran IOC member Angelo Bolanaki was furious. "If we attribute them to another town, we shall commit the infringement of two articles of our fundamental principles and violate 13 articles of our statutes and regulations," he told his fellow members when he welcomed them to Athens. 

Lord Burghley of Great Britain proposed a solution.

"It is our duty to look to the future," he suggested, "begging our Australian friends to forgo the project of organising the equestrian events". 

With no equestrian events included on the Melbourne 1956 Olympic programme, the world’s top riders met in the Swedish capital Stockholm
With no equestrian events included on the Melbourne 1956 Olympic programme, the world’s top riders met in the Swedish capital Stockholm ©Getty Images

Burghley’s proposal was passed by 30 votes to 13. Now the search for a replacement host for this one sport was on. Initially, Dublin showed interest but withdrew because their quarantine regulations were similar to those in Australia. London also seemed keen in the early stages, but when it came to a vote the IOC was left with a choice of five cities. These included Rio de Janeiro.

Stockholm polled 25 votes ahead of Paris with 10. Rio received eight. Berlin and Los Angeles lagged far behind with only two votes.

Within three weeks, an interim committee had gathered in Sweden. King Gustaf VI Adolf agreed to be patron of the Games and Prince Bertil became President of the Organising Committee.

"Both the state and the municipality of Stockholm expressed the opinion that the Games should be self sufficient". but a contingency fund of 200,000 Swedish crowns was placed at the disposal of the Committee just in case. They launched a lottery to raise extra money. It ran for less than two months, but still yielded 183,546 Swedish crowns.

By the 1955 session in Paris, Executive Committee chairman Count Gustav-Fredrik Von Rosen was able to tell his colleague that dates had been fixed for June 1956. Sadly, he died a few months later so never saw his work completed.

In early 1956, the IOC announced: "The Organising Committee has taken every possible step to make available to the public as many seats as possible. To judge from the results of the ticket sales so far and the prevailing trend in this respect it is, however, to be feared that tickets later on will be scarce."

It was possible to buy a "serial" ticket to attend all the events throughout the week of competition. 

The design of the medals was unveiled in April 1956. The work of John Sjosvard, an Olympic medallist in art 20 years before, they depicted a rider on horseback. Sjosvard also created the official posters for the Games.

In early June, the teams began to arrive. The Soviets came across the Baltic from Tallinn. Their journey had taken them over a fortnight. Most other countries flew, including the Australians who sent a team of four.

An Olympic Village was set up 12 kilometres outside Stockholm at the Naval college in the Castle of Nasby. This provided a spectacular rural retreat with landscaped gardens. The Military Academy at Karlberg, formerly a Royal Palace was also used. It was only 10 minutes from the Olympic Stadium itself.

Prince Bertil (right) became President of the Organising Committee
Prince Bertil (right) became President of the Organising Committee ©Getty Images

Rather primly, the official bulletin noted: "Lady competitors will reside in a special section of the old palace." There were 13, more than ever before. At the previous Games in 1952 they had only been permitted to take part in dressage. This time they also competed in show jumping. 

The Olympic flame was flown from Greece to Scandinavia. When it landed in Copenhagen, 1952 Olympic dressage silver medallist Lis Hartel rode along the streets on horseback. The following morning it flew on to Malmo. Riders from 16 Swedish clubs carried the flame to Stockholm supported by the women’s auxiliary corps.

There was to be a regal opening at the Olympic Stadium, which had been used for the 1912 Games. The Swedish Royal family were joined by the Queen and Prince Philip in Stockholm for a state visit. The impending arrival of the Royal Yacht Britannia had captivated the Swedish press all week.

A rain shower drenched those hoping to see the procession but the sun came out as the Royals made their way to the stadium escorted by a squadron of Royal Svea Life Guards astride magnificent chestnut horses.

The Olympic flag was trooped in by riders and for the parade of nations, all competitors were mounted. The excitement and noise proved too much. American Bill Steinkraus was thrown from his horse Night Owl. Happily horse and rider were both unhurt.

Prince Bertil later to become an IOC member, served as President of the Organising Committee.

"The chief aim of the Games is to produce sportsmen and citizens who will render great services on an International basis to their respective countries," he said.

He then invited the King to open the Games.

Outside the arena the flame was approaching, carried once more by a woman. Mrs Wera Collett passed the flame to Hans Wikne, a 41-year-old dressage rider. He made a circuit of the stadium before lighting the cauldron (Wikne did not compete in Stockholm but did ride in the Tokyo Olympics eight years later).

Two runners dressed in white vests emblazoned with the Olympic rings were waiting. Henry Eriksson, Sweden’s 1,500m gold medallist at the 1948 London Games, was joined by 1952 gymnastics gold medallist Karin Lindberg. They carried the flame on foot towards beacons at the stadium entrance.

Henry Eriksson, Sweden’s 1,500m gold medallist at the 1948 London Games,  helped carry the flame
Henry Eriksson, Sweden’s 1,500m gold medallist at the 1948 London Games, helped carry the flame ©Getty Images

Swedish dressage rider Henri St Cyr, an eventer at the 1936 Berlin Games, became the first and so far only man to take the competitors oath on horse back.

"Since my hair has turned white, I devote myself to dressage."

Competition began with the three-day event. Many competitors were soldiers who wore their military uniforms during competition.

On the day before the cross country, the Queen and her sister Princess Margaret made what was described as "an informal visit" to the course at Faboda. They were accompanied by the Duke of Beaufort, founder of the Badminton Horse Trials.

Her Majesty had a particular interest. She was the owner of Countryman, which was to be ridden by Bertie Hill. Even Countryman’s arrival made front page news in Sweden. He was looked after by groom Shirley Burr, described as a "stable miss". Team-mate Colonel Frank Weldon was partnered by the 10-year -old Kilbarry. They had taken part in the Coronation procession three years earlier.

Heavy rain did not deter the crowds. Some 40,000 gathered on the cross country course, many clad from head to toe in water proofs.

After inspecting the course Weldon told reporters: "It is severe, very severe, the most difficult course we have ever faced."

The 22nd fence in particular caused real problems. Twelve fell, and there were 28 refusals. One horse had to be destroyed causing widespread protest. The IOC devoted two pages of their Olympic Review magazine to what they called "the storm of passions which has been aroused".

They laid the blame firmly on the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and suggested that there were "too many inexperienced riders mounted on horses which had undergone insufficient training were accepted at Stockholm". 

Thirty-six survived to contest the jumping. The Swede Petrus Kastenman on Iluster was the first to go. The duly pressure told those who went after him and the home fans could celebrate the first gold medal. Kastenman received it from Brundage. The reward for his horse was a special cockade.

The Queen and her sister Princess Margaret, pictured here with Prince Bertil, made what was described as an informal visit to the course at Faboda
The Queen and her sister Princess Margaret, pictured here with Prince Bertil, made what was described as an "informal visit" to the course at Faboda ©Getty Images

In the team event, Britain held off the Germans and Canadians to take gold. To celebrate, the Queen even held a party on Britannia.

Later in the week, there was a moment of alarm when fire swept through the stables but all the horses were led to safety.

It was fine on the first day of the dressage competition, but it turned bad on the second. The weather did not prove a problem for defending champion St Cyr who put up a very good showing in deplorable conditions. The going was of the consistency of soft glue.

Two women also stood on the podium. Lis Hartel of Denmark won silver as she had done in 1952 and Germany’s Liselotte Linsenhoff took bronze. An all female German team took silver in the team competition behind the Swedes.

The oldest competitor in the entire event was also a woman, 61-year-old Brenda Williams. The wife of British team manager Colonel Vivian Williams, she was known rather unflatteringly as "The Galloping Grandmother".

Many were critical of the judging but FEI President Prince Bernhardt of The Netherlands and secretary Roger Moeremans d’Emaus sprang to the defence of their officials, though their letter to the IOC did concede "we are prepared to admit that there were one or two things in Stockholm that were not perfect".

Show jumping was the grand finale of the week. Germany’s Hans Gunter Winkler took individual gold on Halla, but two Italian brothers gave notice of what they would later achieve. This time, legendary Raimondo and Piero D’Inzeo had to settle for the minor medals. 

Winkler added a team gold to his individual medal.

Popular British rider Pat Smythe on Flanagan took bronze in the team event - the first woman to do so - as competition came to a close.

Agenda 2020 reforms may well open the way for events to be held in neighbouring countries in years to come, but it is surely unlikely that any Olympic Games in future will feature sports on different continents as happened in 1956.