1968. Canada was still on top of the world thanks to the World’s Fair – Expo ’67 – that had been staged in Montreal and had brought of millions of visitors to our doorstep. The following summer the Mexico Olympics played host to countless sports fans, and Canada, for the first time sent a show jumping team to the Olympic Games. And, to firmly place Canada on the map yet again, three Canadian riders and horses came home with the best bling possible around their necks: gold!
There were some important firsts that went hand in hand with the XIC Olympiad, but sadly not all were memorable for the right reasons.Just days before the games began there was a massacre of 200-300 people in Mexico City as students protested the repressive administration of president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and the use of funds for the games instead of for social programs.
Other firsts and highlights included:
- Mexico was the first Latin American city to host the games having beaten Detroit and Lyon in France for the honours.
- Mexico was also the first Olympic Games where hand held timing devices were used along with electronic devices in equestrian events with the electronic time being considered correct in any dispute.
- These Olympics were also the first time West and East Germany had competed as two separate countries.
- Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised single black-gloved fists during the medal ceremonies as a tribute to their African American heritage and living conditions in the USA.
- It was the first games where the closing ceremony was transmitted in color to the entire world.
- Drug testing and female gender verification were conducted for the first time.
One of the greatest challenges facing our four- and two-legged athletes was the elevation of Mexico City that was 2,300 metres above sea level. Interestingly enough, race horses that were shipped in the day before a race and then shipped out one day after were fine. It appeared that horses could adjust to the elevation as soon as they arrived but showed decreased performance around the 10-day mark right up to the 20-day mark. Therefore, countries with horses were advised to ship them in 3-4 weeks before the games.
Canada had sent their best show jumpers and Jim Day with Canadian Club, Jim Elder with The Immigrant and Thomas Gayford with Big Dee were there to make their mark. Day along with Elder and Gayford had had a great warm up the year before on the international stage at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba by winning team bronze while Day won individual gold.
The show jumping world saw this is a bit of luck and not much more. The Europeans had held the show jumping stage for decades but Canadian change was in the wind. Elder too had won a bronze medal as a member of Canada’s Three Day event team at the 1956 Stockholm Olympics so he had substantial all round experience in two disciplines.
Day’s horse Canadian Club was discovered in a field with cows after an unsuccessful racing career and was originally named Dunworkin. He was bought to be a hunter but Day saw the horse’s talent, asked for the ride and the horse made history for Canada within the show jumping world for years.
Jim Elder and his ride, The Immigrant, had only been together for six months before the games. Imported from Europe as a field hunter for the Ox Ridge Hunt in Connecticut, the horse delighted the fans by kicking and bucking after a jump. One wonders how Elder stayed on…we know his helmet rarely did!
Gayford’s horse Big Dee, a former race horse that hadn’t done much as a race horse was bought by Gayford and his father Gordon, for $400.00 off the track at Fort Erie. Big Dee spent the next portion of her life in the hunt field but while sloppy over the small jumps, she rose to the occasion over the bigger ones and somebody took note. Good bye to the hunt and the hounds, hello to the show jumping ring!
There were nothing nice about the Olympic course with 14 jumps and 17 efforts set at strange, awkward angles and placed close together. In Debbie Gamble-Arsenault’s book Legendary Show Jumpers: The Incredible Stories of Great Canadian Horses, some of the riders, Elder included, felt that when the Dutch designer had been give the dimensions of the stadium he had not been told that at, “ least 30 feet were needed on either side for the track and field.” The end result was a greatly altered course with “smaller and different distances.”
After round one the Canadian Team were in third place.Gayford was the first to tackle the timber in round two and came back with valuable information about the course for his team mates. Day went next and he and “Clubby” attacked the course with determination and boldness. They left the ring with 12 faults. Elder, was the final anchor rider for Canada, and it was up to him to do better than the French rider who had made a real mess of his round and walked out with 28 faults. It was crunch time and who better to do it than a real veteran of the show ring. The thrill of walking into the ring plays on both man and beast and the electric excitement that day in the Mexican stadium was palpable. The first six jumps stayed put but the seventh went south but that was the only jump to fall. The final tally said it all: Canada 102.75, France 110.5 and Germany 117.25.
And, to those naysayers who thought the Pan Am medals for Canada were just luck the year before, Canada’s triumphant trio: Day, Elder and Gayford stood proud on the podium in Mexico as if to say to the doubtful: “Watch and learn!”
Here are just a few more of our show jumping medal wins:
- 1970 World Championships, France: Canada won team gold
- 1971 Pan Am Games, Cali, Colombia: Canada won team gold
- 1976 Canada’s Michel Vaillancourt with Branch County won silver in individual show jumping.
- 2008 Beijing Olympics: Eric Lamaze and Hickstead won gold in the individual show jumping while Jill Henselwood and Special Ed, Eric Lamaze and Hickstead, Ian Millar and In Style and Mac Cone and Ole won show jumping team silver.