Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

The equestrian events at the Olympics presented a unique problem - one that should have been foreseen, and one that raised another threat to Melbourne’s hosting of the Games..

Melbourne's bid document, although elaborately presented, contained little detail on individual sports - hardly surprising given most of the sites were non-existent - but it did contain an illustration of "keen and experienced riders converging on Melbourne for its grand Royal Agricultural Show" as part of the promotion of the Showgrounds site.

Certainly the bid committee were aware that the equestrian events were a traditional and integral part of the Games calendar, but there was no mention of horses from overseas or Australian quarantine laws in the final presentation or later at meeting of the I.O.C. meeting in November, 1949.

It is believed that Harold Luxton at a later in May, 1950 referred to equestrian events being "held in the main stadium and excellent picturesque hunting country". but still with no reference to long-established quarantine laws.  A few months earlier when the M.C.G. was being revived as the potential main stadiums, local newspapers were still offering suggestions of the equestrian events being held at the Showgrounds (which would have been in fact, an ideal site).

The likely problem appears to have been raised from an unlikely source, Mr. W Berge Phillips, secretary of the Australian Swimming Union, reported as saying that he had been told during the London Games that it took three years to train a horse for the events and that under current quarantine laws. probably only England and New Zealand could send horses; adding a rather far-fetched proposition that Australia horses could be bought and trained "for years" and allocated to overseas competitors.

("Foreign" animals had no direct means of entry. The only way they could arrive in Australia was to serve six months' quarantine in the United Kingdom and on production of a clean bill of health after that period, they were allowed entry into any Commonwealth country. The same restriction applied to Australian horses travelling overseas and for that reason, there had never been an Australian equestrian team prior to the Melbourne Games, although a six-man team travelled to Stockholm when the city was ultimately selected as the site for the 1956 Games events).

In June, 1950, Wilfred Kent Hughes urged an approach by the O.O.C. to the Federal Government to discuss quarantine regulations, but what is not absolutely clear is when the International Committee became aware of the quarantine problem.

At least one country came up with a novel possible solution - in July, 1951, the secretary of the Argentinean Equestrian Federation sought clarification of the quarantine laws, suggesting at the same time that if it was not possible to bring their own horses, they would come to Australia months before the Games and train a team of local horses for their own use, and in return for the loan of the animals, offered to train both the Australian riders and a team of local horses.

In February, 1953 and around the time the dispute over the main stadium was nearing settlement, the Games were again under threat; the three-day equestrian and Grand Prix des Nations (grand prix show jumping event). were amongst a number of "compulsory sports" "without which you have no Olympics".

Arthur Coles admitted that the equestrian issue remained as Melbourne's "Achilles heel" and suggested Melbourne was about "6 to 4" to retain the Games, and added that the likely replacement, Mexico City faced to same quarantine problem.  Hugh Weir, one of the delegates to the I.O.C. suggested that he had asked the Olympic Council the pertinent question: "If Australia's quarantine regulations were all lifted, could all countries afford the cost of sending horses to Australia for equestrian events?", and that no one could answer the question.

Significantly, the U.S. equestrian withdrew around the same time; France a week later, suggesting prohibitive costs as the primary reason.

Several approaches were made to Sir Earle Page, the Federal Health Minister who reiterated the ban would not be lifted, proposing instead that sufficient number of horses from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia could be assembled and trained prior to the Games. This idea was mooted a few times, but showed a rather naïve understanding of the equestrian concept which requires a complete understanding, almost a harmony, between rider and animal.

In August, 1953 the acting chairman of the Games Organising Committee, Mr Lewis Luxton refuted what he called a "mischievous report" attributed to the I.O.C. in Lausanne that there would be no equestrian events following Australia's refusal to lift the quarantine ban, suggesting that Australia, England, Ireland and New Zealand were guaranteed entry, and that provided two other entries were received, the events would proceed as planned in Melbourne. (I.O.C. Rule 42 demanded that entries from a minimum of six nations were required before any Games event could be staged).

Suggestions had been made that the equestrian events should be held in a European venue - Dublin was being heavily promoted by Colonel Harry Llewellyn, an English gold medallist at the Helsinki Games - but on receiving a cable suggesting Melbourne was still hopeful of staging the event, I.O.C. Chancellor Otto Mayer described Llewellyn's proposal as directly contrary to the Olympic rules which provided that all events must be held in or near the city to which the Games had been allocated … "If the committee want to change the rules, that is another matter. But as things stand now, equestrian events must be held in Melbourne or not at all — and it looks like the latter to me."

Crunch Time

In December, Avery Brundage arrived in London on his way to an I.O.F. meeting in Lausanne and suggested the Australian Government's quarantine laws made the holding of the events impossible and that some eleven European and seven American cities had offered sites. The meeting was called to set an agenda for a full meeting of the I.O.F in Athens in May at which it was expected the fate of the Melbourne Olympics would be decided.

Lord Burghley (The Marquess of Exeter) , British delegate on the committee and one of the two vice-presidents, was reported he was confident that all differences would be ironed out at Lausanne and that the games would definitely be held in Melbourne as scheduled ... "If the equestrian events prove the one difficulty over the site for the Games, we will propose that these events be taken out of the programme for Melbourne and held in another city", which of course required an alteration to the rule that the equestrian events had to be held "in or near" the host city.

A new D-Day came at the meeting of the I.O.F. in Lausanne on 19 January, 1954 when the French member, Mr Armand Massard, the other vice-president of the Committee urged that the Games be moved because as Australia was unable to hold the equestrian competition, Olympic rules would be violated. (Massard had forewarned his move at the earlier meeting in January).

The International Equestrian Federation recommended to Brundage that the events be moved, but made no suggestions as to a possible site - the normally abrasive Brundage took an unusually conciliatory stance, agreeing to send the recommendation back to Australia for "comment and advice”, and adding that if it were not possible for Australian authorities to set aside quarantine laws for the mainland "they have several islands down there which could conceivably be used". (Don’t hold your breath, Tasmania!)

Massad stated that he realised that such drastic action by the executive committee would need to be unanimous, but he could not agree with the failure of the group to take more forceful action on the equestrian issue, quoting promises made by the Melbourne organisers in Mexico City the previous year to do their best to eliminate the quarantine as "a violation of  good faith” as well as a breaking of Olympic regulations. He declared his intention to raise the issue again prior to the crucial full meeting of the I.O.C. in May.

Prior to the crucial May meeting, it was suggested that I.O.C. committee (of 42) were split into two factions - Brundage and Massad taking the view that any city which had to impose such limitations was not the right place to stage the Games; the other group headed by Lord Burghley and Prince Axel of Denmark wanted the Games to remain in Melbourne with the equestrian events held elsewhere, probably a city in Germany.  Brussels and Rome (later selected for the 1960 Olympics and also hosting the 1956 Winter Olympics in January and February) were now suggested as the most likely for an alternative location for 1956.

The vote to alter the I.O.C. requirement for the host city to also stage the equestrian events required a two-thirds majority of the 42 members, or 28 votes - the decision to allow the equestrian events to be moved was almost as close as that which had awarded to Games to Melbourne some five years earlier, the final tally 28 to 12 with two abstainers.

What is not clear is when the I.O.C. became aware of the problems facing the equestrian events.

Kent Hughes suggested he was unaware as to whether quarantine restrictions were mentioned in Rome in 1949, and suggested in a letter to Harold (later Sir Harold) Alderson, then chairman of the Australian Olympic Federation that whilst Melbourne was keen to hold the events, no other country would be prepared to break down their quarantine regulations at the risk of endangering their own livestock, at the same time pointing out that Australia had never been able to compete in equestrian events for that reason.

In turn, both Mayer and Sigrid Edstrom, head of the I.O.C. at the time of Melbourne's bid both claimed that the first time that had been made aware of the quarantine difficulty was during the 1952 Games in Helsinki.

No Courses For Horses!