Strange but true: long and high jump at Paris 1900 – on horseback!
Equestrian sport made its Olympic debut in Paris in 1900. Among the five events contested at the Place de Breteuil arena – for the first and only time – were long and high jump competitions!
Equestrian sport made its first Olympic appearance in an era when horses were still very much an essential mode of transport. The competitions took place over three days in the arena at Place de Breteuil, in the very heart of the French capital.
Prizes were awarded for each of the sporting competitions, which were staged under the aegis of the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle. The winners each received either an artwork or a cash prize of between 4,000 and 6,000 francs. There were five equestrian competitions in all, of which three were recognised by the International Olympic Committee: jumping, high jump and long jump! The other two events were "mail coach" and "hacks and hunters combined".
In the jumping event, which is the only one of the five contested at Paris 1900 that remains part of the Olympic sports programme, the top three prizes were awarded to riders who completed the course without any faults, and classified according to their times. Belgian Aimé Haegeman, riding Benton II, topped the rankings to become the first-ever Olympic gold medallist in equestrian sport. Second and third respectively were fellow Belgian Georges Van der Poele (on Windsor Squire) and France's Louis de Champsavin (on Terpsichore).
Higher and longer on horseback…
In Paris, the long and high jump, traditionally contested in athletics, were transposed to the equestrian arena for the first and only time in Olympic history. In the long jump, the initial challenge was to clear a distance of 4.50m, which all 17 competitors managed; however, several then fell by the wayside once the asking distance was increased to 4.90m. In the end, Belgian army officer Constant van Langhendonck, riding his mare Extra Dry, emerged in a league of his own, as the only rider to go clear at 6.10m, to secure the top prize. He was followed by Italy's Giovanni Giorgio Trissino (on Oreste), who managed 5.70m, and Frenchman Camille de La Forgue de Bellegarde, (on Tolla) who recorded a best jump of 4.90m.
On the final day of competition, 18 competitors took part in what was billed as the "high jump championship". The gold medal was shared by France's Dominique Gardères (on Canella) and Trissino, riding Oreste once more and who in the process became Italy's first-ever Olympic champion. The two horses – with Oreste standing 5cm taller at 1.64m – both cleared a bar 1.85m off the ground. Riding Ludlow, Van der Poele jumped 1.70m to finish third.
…and higher and longer still out of the saddle!
As for the human version of the high jump, the two-metre mark was first cleared in 1912. Thanks to subsequent improvements in technique, athletes were able to jump higher and higher. Dick Fosbury used his famous "flop" to great effect to win gold at Mexico City 1968, while Cuba's Javier Sotomayor set the current world record of 2.45m in 1993. As for the Olympic record, that is held by the USA's Charles Austin, who cleared 2.39m at Atlanta 1996.
Another American, Ellery Clark, had the honour of becoming the first Olympic long jump champion at Athens 1896, with a leap of 6.35m. By the start of the 20th century, long jumpers were regularly going out over 7m, though that was nothing compared to the 8.13m that the great Jesse Owens jumped in 1935, setting a world record that would stand for 25 years.
The most memorable long jump of them all, however, would come at Mexico City 1968, when Bob Beamon of the USA produced a magical leap of 8.90m. A world record at the time, it remains an Olympic record. It has been beaten just the once, at the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Tokyo, when the USA's Mike Powell edged a legendary duel with his compatriot Carl Lewis with a leap of 8.95m.
While it might look like the horses of Paris 1900 have been soundly beaten by their human counterparts, it should be said that the heavy ground they competed on was far from ideal for jumping competitions.
Nevertheless, there can be no denying that those unique equestrian long and high jump events at the turn of the 20th century form an indelible part of Olympic history, and offered a thrilling spectacle for those fortunate enough to witness them.