FEI WEG:
Where it all Began

18 June 2018

Gold medalist Blyth Tait and event director Ulf Rosengren look back on the inaugural World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990…

Ulf Rosengren looked up as the rain continued to fall from the Stockholm sky. In just a few moments Princess Anne, the President of the FEI, would be delivering her address at the Opening Ceremony of the first ever World Equestrian Games in 1990.

 

Rosengren, President of the Executive Committee, had driven the development of the inaugural WEG for the previous five years, obsessively propelling an idea he knew could be a roaring success despite the opposition of the nay-sayers.

 

In the drizzle at the 1912 Olympic Stadium, a soldier was thrown off his horse in the parade – Ulf felt another knot in his stomach as the omens took another turn for the worse.

 

But then, as if from nowhere, the clouds lifted and the sun beamed as the Royal visitor gave her speech to the thousands who had assembled in the venue in the Swedish capital. The sun would not set for two weeks of wonderful competition in what proved to be an incredibly successful first staging of the event that has become equestrian sports’ most celebrated competition.

 

Ahead of WEG 2018, which begins on September 11 in Tryon, North Carolina, we go back to the start…

"It caught the
imagination
of the public"

The concept for WEG, where all equestrian sports could come together in one huge event, had been first mooted by the Duke of Edinburgh, then the FEI President, as early as 1983.

From the off, Rosengren, the Secretary General of the Swedish Equestrian Federation, thought WEG sounded like “a brilliant idea”, despite opposition from his own organisation and many of the other nations.

 

In 1986, Rosengren managed to convince both the FEI to approve the event and the rest of the Swedish federation to back his plan to stage it in Stockholm.

 

From then on “it was my baby”, as Rosengren told FEI.org, and he set about putting together an Organising Committee that included some of Sweden’s top industrial leaders, including Pehr Gyllenhammar, Chairman and CEO of Volvo.

 

More than 400 athletes from 37 countries made the trip to Sweden in the summer of 1990 to participate in the six disciplines – Jumping, Eventing, Dressage, Vaulting, Driving and Endurance. Running between July 24 to August 5, major events were scheduled for the renovated 1912 Olympic Stadium and the city’s Royal Park, which would host the cross country and marathon courses.

 

Young New Zealand Eventer Blyth Tait had been determined to attend this carnival of equestrian sports for some time, and more than 12 months before the event was scheduled he was already making plans to travel to Europe and qualify for Stockholm.

 

He even sold his car to fund the trip!

 

In a golden age of Eventing, Tait was not considered a favourite as he arrived in Stockholm, and even the then 29-year-old himself felt compatriot Mark Todd was the most likely winner.

 

 

However, buoyed by strong performances at Chantilly, Achselswang and Badminton in the build-up, Tait told FEI.org: “I guess naively I believed I had a chance.”

 

With Messiah previously a Jumping specialist, Tait was convinced that if they could perform well in the Cross Country they would have a fantastic opportunity of gold in the final discipline.

 

“The Cross Country was very tough,” Tait says. “It was long and the time was very hard to achieve.

 

“My horse, Messiah was a proper thoroughbred with plenty of speed and stamina. He was a brave as a lion and very agile so the course was perfect for him. I had one very close call at the water complex but survived to jump clear.

 

“I went in to Jumping with a good advantage and so was hopeful of success.”

 

Incredibly, Tait and Messiah were able to hold their nerves in the Jumping and finished ahead of silver medalist Ian Stark and Bruce Davidson in bronze to become the first ever WEG Eventing champions. Twenty-eight years later and the now 57-year-old admits the Individual and Team golds – secured with Todd, Andrew Nicholson and Andrew Scott – changed his life.

 

 

“There was a massive contingent of NZ supporters that had made the trip and the party to celebrate our gold medals is now legendary,” says Tait, who repeated his golden double at WEG 1998 in Rome and has also won a total of four Olympic medals.

 

“Initially the enormity of being the first Eventing WEG gold medalist didn’t really sink in, but in time it has.

 

“It was a great thrill and definitely paved the way for me to remain in Europe to compete. My original plan was to return to NZ post Stockholm but winning gold allowed me to consider making a career of riding.”

 

Eric Navet and Quito de Baussy made it a double gold in the Jumping competition, securing the Individual and Team titles alongside Hubert Bourdy, Roger-Yves Bost and Pierre Durand on Jappeloup.

 

“Everyone including myself was hoping that John Whitaker and Milton should win, but I was so happy for his silver medal,” recalls Ulf.

 

There was also a double gold for Nicole Uphoff and West Germany in Dressage, while Thomas Eriksson and Sweden were triumphant in Driving. American Becky Hart took Endurance gold, with Great Britain winning the Team event, while Germans Michael Lehner and Silke Bernhard and the Swiss team were the Vaulting champions.

 

“It was a hugely exciting experience,” recalls Tait. “Bigger than anything I had experienced before and well presented and promoted.

 

“I remember thinking when riding through the streets of Stockholm on the roads and tracks phase, ‘How on earth has a NZ rider, on a NZ horse ended up here?’ It just wasn’t really done in those days but since then, world travel with horses for competition has really become much more the norm.”

letters-1990-1806

Following his early nerves, Rosengren’s confidence in the WEG concept had been vindicated.

More than 300,000 tickets sold, impressive sponsorship revenue and captivating competitions ensured that the FEI soon after approved plans for WEG to become a quadrennial event like the Olympic Games and other sports’ major world championships.

 

“It caught the imagination of the public as it was the biggest sporting event in Sweden to date at that time,” says Ulf.

 

“The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic, which I am still reminded of today when I meet people who were there.

 

“It was, and still is, a major part of my life. If you had woken me up during the five years of preparation and asked for my name, I would have said ‘World Equestrian Games’.”

 

Follow all the build-up to WEG, which begins on September, on FEI.org. Live coverage of all events will be available on FEI TV

 

Text by Richard Mulligan

Images by Kit Houghton / Roland Thunholm

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