BY SARAH MARINOS
As the Tokyo Olympics reaches its conclusion, we celebrate the performances by the Australian teams who have performed with distinction in the modern era of Olympic history. Here we turn the spotlight on the equestrian events and the competitors who have achieved success, including the eventing team who have just secured the silver medal in the Teams competition and individual bronze by one amazing horseman.
In 1956, the world came to Melbourne. More than 3000 competitors from far-flung parts of the globe converged on the city to take part in the Games of the XVI Olympiad. They were an Olympics of firsts. The 1956 Olympics were the first time the event was held outside Europe or North America, and they were the first Games held in the Southern Hemisphere.
They were also the first Olympics with live television broadcasts that brought the events into Australian lounge rooms.
And they were the first Games in which athletes united to walk together as part of the official closing ceremony. The Melbourne Olympics were also a first in another respect.
By the time the opening ceremony unfolded on Thursday 22 November, and by the time Australian athlete Ron Clarke lit the cauldron, one of the sports had already been completed. Because of Australia’s strict quarantine laws, the equestrian events had to be held in another country, and so they took place in Stockholm, Sweden, five months before the official Games began.
The Australian team narrowly missed out on medals that time around, the team placing fourth. At the following Olympics in Rome in 1960, the Australians struck gold – literally. Since then Australia has built on its equestrian successes, particularly in eventing.
Australia's first equestrian team left Melbourne in January 1955 for the six-week journey to England. Only 15 months before the competition, none of the eventing team – David Wood, Brian Crago, Ernie Barker, and Wyatt Thompson – had performed dressage before their selection or had experience in three-day eventing.
In fact, their only event before the Olympics in Stockholm was to qualify at the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials in England. Finishing fourth in the Olympics was a surprise achievement.
“For a country which never before competed in Olympic equestrian events, Australia’s effort was remarkable,” wrote The Daily Telegraph in Sydney. “It will enhance Australia’s reputation for horsemanship throughout the world.”
Wyatt (Bunty) Thompson, who grew up in the New South Wales highlands on his family’s sheep and cattle property, later recalled his pride in riding into the stadium in Stockholm as part of that Olympic team.
“I could feel tears of triumph and humility,” he recalls. “I had fought for Australia in the war, and now I was battling again for my country in sport. In all my dreams and ambitions, I had never imagined achieving such a great honour.”
During the Rome Olympics, Australia confirmed its reputation as a force to be reckoned with in eventing by winning the gold medal in the teams’ competition. The team included Lawrence (Laurie) Morgan, Neale Lavis, Bill Roycroft and Brian Crago; Laurie Morgan and Neale Lavis also winning the gold and silver medals respectively in the individual contest. During the cross-country event, Roycroft fell and had to be airlifted to hospital, leaving three riders to compete – and Crago's horse had already been withdrawn from the competition.
Against doctor’s orders, 45-year-old Roycroft left the hospital. He competed with one arm in a sling, completed a clear show-jumping round, and helped the team secure gold. He went on to compete in five Olympic Games in all.He produced 23 Olympic horses and his sons Barry, Wayne and Clarke, as well as daughter-in-law Vicki, also became Olympic riders. Bill and Wayne were part of the Australian team to win bronze in 1968 and in 1976, becoming the first father and son combination to share the winners’ podium at the same time.
Shane Rose riding Virgil during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Yuki Iwamura/Getty Images)
Australia continued to enjoy equestrian success and earn medals. The eventing team won bronze in Mexico City (1968) and Montreal (1976), and made Olympic history as the first country to win three consecutive gold medals in the eventing teams competition in Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000). This incredible feat was complemented by individual medals during this period: Matt Ryan won gold in Barcelona (1992), and Andrew Hoy won silver in Sydney (2000).
Andrew Hoy has proved a stalwart of the eventing team, having just completed his eighth Olympic Games, the only Australian to achieve this milestone. “The feeling from each Olympics changes because as you get older you value things more – you value the results, you value the opportunities and you value life more,” he said. “The goal is to be successful and produce a world-class performance.”
Women have been an integral part of Australia’s eventing history. Gillian Rolton was the first woman to win gold as part of the Australian team, riding Peppermint Grove at the Barcelona Olympics, a feat she repeated again at the next Olympics in Atlanta where she was joined by Wendy Schaeffer, who rode her pony club horse Sunburst to be part of the gold medal-winning team. Sonja Johnson was non-travelling reserve for the Australian team in 1996 and was listed for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, but injuries prevented her from competing. The determined Johnson finally made the team for Beijing in 2008, where she was joined by teammates Lucinda Fredericks, Megan Jones, Shane Rose, and Clayton Fredericks to secure the silver medal.
Dressage rider Mary Hanna made history in Tokyo as the oldest Australian Olympian, appearing at her sixth Olympic Games.
Australian talent was on display in the equestrian arena at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Scott Keach, who began riding on sheep and cattle farms in Western Australia and first represented Australia in show jumping at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, found himself in Rio 28 years later at the age of 51.
Edwina Tops-Alexander continues to represent her home country and will be at Tokyo competing in show jumping. She was crowned Australia's Best Junior at the Australian Young Rider Championships in 1995 and by 2011 was the top-ranked female rider in the world. Prior to Tokyo, Tops-Alexander has represented Australia in the Olympics on three occasions: in Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and she has accumulated two top ten placings from her Olympic appearances.
Australia’s success in Olympic eventing continued at Rio, with the team of Shane Rose, Stuart Tinney, Sam Griffiths and Chris Burton securing bronze.
All of this previous success meant that expectations were high for the Australian team in Tokyo – and they certainly did not disappoint! The team consisted of Andrew Hoy, Shane Rose and Kevin McNab, the travelling reserve making his Olympic debut in Tokyo after the decision was taken for Stuart Tinney not to start in the dressage. The Australian team was in sixth place after the dressage phase, however a typically strong performance in the cross-country saw them move up to silver medal position ahead of the show jumping, just 0.9 penalty points ahead of third-placed France. Steely nerves saw both Andrew and Kevin claim clear rounds, with Shane adding just one rail to ensure the team finished in second place.
Andrew Hoy’s horse Vassily de Lassos turned in a superlative performance, also jumping clear in the second show jumping round which determined results for the individual competition, to be the only horse in the competition to finish on his dressage score and secure the bronze medal.
Following the eventing team’s impressive performance this week, Australia has now won 23 Olympic and Paralympic medals in equestrian disciplines. With the depth of talent and passion that was on display in Tokyo, the future looks bright for the sport with such a rich history, and hopefully many more Olympic medals to come.
The racing and equestrian worlds overlap in many ways.
Shane Rose, part of Australia’s silver medal-winning eventing team in Tokyo this year, not only won a silver medal in Beijing in 2008 with the brilliant off-the-track thoroughbred All Luck, but is also one of Australian racing’s premier horsemen. At Bimbadeen Park he educates young horses, and offers spelling and pre-training, often with great success. Among his students are colts Capitalist and Hellbent, as well as fillies September Run, Funstar and Egg Tart.
Andrew Hoy is also connected to the racing world. Ex-racehorses often factored in his career as a young rider in Queensland, and he won a gold medal at the Barcelona Games in 1992 on the thoroughbred, Kiwi. He is a proud VRC member who has regularly been a part of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, and has recently worked with Racing Victoria, promoting the transition of retired racehorses into equestrian careers.
Stuart Tinney's greatest success also came aboard a thoroughbred, when he won team gold on Jeepster at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Historically, thoroughbreds have been an integral part of the Australian Equestrian Team’s success in eventing. Some of the incredible thoroughbreds who have brought home Olympic medals for Australia include Kiwi (Andrew Hoy – Team gold medal, Barcelona 1992), Sunburst (Wendy Schaeffer – Team gold medal, Atlanta 1996), True Blue Girdwood (Phillip Dutton – Team gold medal, Atlanta 1996), House Doctor (Phillip Dutton – Team gold medal, Sydney 2000), Jeepster (Stuart Tinney – Team gold medal, Sydney 2000), and All Luck (Shane Rose – Team silver medal, Beijing 2008). While there are no thoroughbreds on the Australian team for this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, there were two shortlisted ahead of the original date last year – Koko Popping Candy (Amanda Ross) and Willingapark Clifford (Hazel Shannon) while Shane Rose’s Tokyo horse, Virgil, has a thoroughbred dam.