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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

The Olympics, Horses, and Spirits

As the Woodford Reserve advertisement shares (with a voice over from Kentucky native George Clooney), “In Kentucky, horses are everything. And bourbon is everything else”.

Normally, when we’re talking bourbon and horses, we’re talking thoroughbred racing, wagers, and cocktails. But with the 2020 Summer Olympics underway, we thought we’d tie the Olympics, horses, and spirits all together. Traditional equine events kicking off this week include dressage, show jumping, and eventing (a “triathalon”, if you will, of dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping). But do you know that there is another Olympic event that involves horses? No, it’s not water polo …

It’s the modern pentathlon. Designed to replicate the challenges that a suitor might face to rescue their “damsel in distress” or carry a message to headquarters, and includes fencing, a 200m freestyle swimming, 5000m steeplechase (now changed to show jumping), and a final combined event of pistol shooting and a 4000m (now 3200m) cross-country run. The event has been part of the modern Olympics since its introduction in 1912 when the United State’s team included a young Army cavalry lieutenant- George S. Patton. Yes, that one. “Old Blood & Guts”.

Some notes on Patton’s Olympics:

In 1912, there were no formal Olympic trials or games leading up to the games. Patton's ability to run, ride, shoot, fence and swim were legendary. It was only natural for George to be selected as America's first (and only) pentathalon entry that year.

Upon his selection to the team, less than 8 weeks until the competition, he began training vigorously, giving up alcohol and tobacco, dieting on "raw steak and salad".

To train for swimming, his weakest event, Patton utilized a 20-foot canvas pool on the steamer S.S. Finland he took to Sweden. He fashioned a rope around his waist, secured it to the deck, and once in the pool, swam in place till his skin was rubbed raw from the rope. So vigorously did he swim at the Olympics, that he was exhausted after his swim phase and had to be hauled from the water with a boathook.

While other participants used smaller-gauge .22s for the pistol shooting, Patton brought his .38 caliber service revolver with him and used that (it was more becoming of his character, he said). Patton fired 20 rounds at the paper target, but judges could only find 17 holes. Patton was certain he'd not missed and some of the bullets must have went through earlier hits on the target; he failed to convince the judges and they deducted accordingly.

Fencing was Patton's strongest suit and he carried his bold, offensive-mindedness to the competition. "To attack was to succeed, to defend was to invite defeat." To Patton's credit, he defeated French swordsman Jean de Mas Latrie with his aggressive strategy.

The steeplechase event at Stockholm, Sweden consisted of 25 jumps and 50 other obstacles, including single and double drainage ditches, fallen logs, rock-strewn hills and forests outside of the city. Similar to modern-day eventing, riders could walk the course prior to competition, but the horse saw the course only once - when they competed. Patton's mount, Fencing Girl, was injured prior to competition and he was loaned a Swedish cavalry mount from the hosts. Allowed a 20 minute warm-up ride and jumping just 3 fences on his borrowed mount, he set out on his course. Patton completed the round and stood in sixth place.

The final phase of the event was the challenging 2.5 mile run over forested paths and included swamps "six inches deep in mud". Competitors could not view the course prior to their run. Many struggled in one of Sweden's hottest days on record; two runners fainted and one died. Patton's trainer, Mike Murphy, had provided opium (it was legal at the time) to help dull any pain and provide stamina. in the end, Patton's body gave out as he entered the Olympic stadium for the final stretch, forced to walk the final 50 meters, crossing the finish line, and collapsing in front of dignitaries.

In the end, Patton finished the pentathlon in 5th place at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, which also marked the last time that the gold medals were made of solid gold. Patton was primed for a repeat performance in the 1916 Olympics, which would be pushed back another four years due to World War I. By 1920, Patton was a U.S. Army major commanding the United States Tank Corps, in his mid-30s, and athletics were no longer a priority.

We've shared information about the Olympics and horses - if you'd like to learn more about George Patton's favorite spirit, check out our review of Patton: Armored Diesel here.

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