Hubbard's Cupboard: When dressage riders were different class

The man with incredible tales from past Games
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The Independent Online

Dressage riders say their sport is a mixture of gymnastics and ballet for horses, but until chess or crocheting becomes an Olympic pursuit it will remain the least action-packed of the 26 in the Games.

Today's Grand Prix final at Greenwich Park may seem to the uninitiated like show time for toffs in top hats, but the contestants are rather more eclectic than those who took part the last time the Games were held here in 1948. No women then, and no civilians. Dancing horses performed strictly to a military two-step, with only commissioned officers allowed. This was the rule based on the theory that dressage evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield, imposed when it had become an Olympic sport in 1912 Games in Stockholm.

It was to lead to one of the worst examples of snobbery in Olympic history. In the middle of the 1948 team competition, held on the Army complex at Aldershot, Commandant Georges Hector, a Frenchman who was Secretary General of the International Equestrian Federation, suddenly pointed to a Swedish rider, Gehnail Persson, who had been entered as an officer, and roared: "This man is not an officer. He is riding in the cap of a sergeant."

Persson, who had been placed sixth in the individual event, was immediately disqualified. And while, after protests, the Swedish team were initially allowed to keep their gold medals, eight months later they were forced to hand them over to the second-placed French.

However, the absurdity of the situation caused such controversy within the Olympic movement that the regulation was scrapped for the next Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 and civilian men – and women – were allowed to compete.