Excerpt from Women and the Olympic Dream

The following is an abridged excerpt from the section “Carried into History,” part of Chapter Eight, “Olympic Gigantism and the Zero-Sum Game (1924-1976).” It describes what happened when women were finally admitted into the equestrian event of dressage.

Gigantism has always been one of the happy problems of the Games, a difficulty born out of its popularity. Spectators pay for a big chunk of the contests, so when demand for a new sport rises, so does funding, through sponsorship and ticket sales. But expenses increase as well. In order to combat spiraling costs, the IOC routinely challenged each international federation to prove that their sport was performed by as many countries and practitioners as possible. Although the IOC argued that adding women increased expense, sports federations in the 1950s began to point out that adding women to existing venues would make them more cost-effective. The gigantism argument could be offset if both women and men could compete in the same place using the same staff….

Between 1936 and 1968, four new sports were opened to women. Two disciplines opened up for mixed genders, where women and men could compete directly against each other. The results helped women gain new respect and new footholds, though there were also headwinds. Those two sports, curiously enough, both came out of the military….

Olympic equestrian competitions began in 1912, although entry to all events was originally restricted to military officers riding military-trained horses…Women, whose horse-riding pedigrees were long acknowledged (think of either Queen Elizabeth), could compete in Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) competitions beginning in the 1930s. But not in the Olympics. In 1938, Rule 214 specified that Amazons (women riders) could qualify for non-Olympic competitions only. Moreover, to help their countries’ Olympic teams, women were encouraged to lend their horses.

However, big changes came after a dressage scandal of 1948…[and]…whether the disgrace was in allowing the “impostor” or in having ridiculously rigid rules, the FEI wanted to avoid future scandals. In 1952, they opened the barn doors completely. Civilians were allowed—even in dressage—as well as non-commissioned officers. Further, as long as they were throwing caution to the wind, they let women in as well….Something in the 1952 dressage competitions convinced them that the “weaker” sex had the strength and courage to handle horses. That something was probably Lis Hartel.

Lis Hartel competing in 1952. Photo from wikimedia.

Hartel was the Danish dressage champion of 1943, an up-and-coming 23-year-old rider, honing her craft during the war and awaiting the opportunity for post-war competitions. One morning in 1944, however, she woke with a frightening headache. When the symptoms persisted, doctors confirmed the worst: she had contracted polio. Hartel had been pregnant when polio hit but, luckily, delivered a healthy baby. However, she was rendered completely paralyzed and told she would not likely walk, let alone ride again.

Sometimes the victim of a disease gets lucky, and sometimes they just need the right motivation. Hartel began physical therapy and slowly muscled her way out of bed and back on to a horse. After years of therapeutic work, she regained some muscular use in her arms and upper legs, though she was limited from the knees down.

Oddly enough, dressage might be the one sport where having such limited use is not necessarily a dream-killer. Had she remained immobile from the waist down, she could not have managed to control her mount, but as long as she had her knees and enough determination, she could compete successfully. The biggest issue was now getting on the horse.

That problem turned out to be the easiest to solve. Plenty of aides were there in the Helsinki Olympics to lift Hartel onto her beloved horse, Jubilee. There were also three other women competing, but Hartel’s was the story of the competition.

The best rider in the world, Sweden’s Henri St. Cyr, won the event easily, competing in his third Olympics. His Swedish team (including the now-qualifying non-commissioned officer, Gehnäll Persson) also took the gold. But the battle for second and third was between Denmark’s Hartel and France’s André Jousseaume.

Hartel squeaked out a win by a half point, with a 541.5 score, a mere .09% ahead. The drama continued at the medal ceremony. In a gesture of goodwill, gold medalist St. Cyr carried Hartel from her horse to the second-place spot on the podium. There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium.

Four years later, for the 1956 Olympics, Hartel proved she was no fluke by winning her second silver medal, again placing below the legendary Henri St. Cyr. Germany’s Liselott Linselhof took third, becoming the second woman to win a medal in a mixed sport.

Hartel’s achievements became a part of history, both for women and for disabled advocates. She further championed efforts for decades to help polio victims and to advance therapeutic riding, eventually regaining some mobility in her legs. She also demonstrated that women could achieve marks equal to or better than men, even under exacting standards.

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