Zara Phillips and 100 Years of Royal Athletes in the Olympic Equestrian Events

Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and eldest granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips is currently competing in the equestrian events as a member of Team Great Britain at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The royal family has been in the stands at Greenwich Park yesterday and today supporting her quest for Olympic Gold. On Sunday, Zara’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and her mother Princess Anne, herself a former Olympic equestrian competitor, applauded her strong showing in the dressage. Today, a large gathering of Zara’s royal relatives attended the show jumping including her cousins the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. Zara commented after the events, “It was incredible, an amazing feeling to be part of the Olympics and to ride for your country and to just be here. The crowd are amazing.” Team Great Britain is thought to have a strong chance of reaching the podium for the equestrian events.

Zara is not the only royal athlete in the 2012 Olympic equestrian events. The Saudi Arabian equestrian team contains two members of the House of Al Saud including King Abdullah’s grandson, Prince Abdullah bin Miteb and his second cousin, Prince Faisal Al Shalan. In contrast to Team Great Britain, which has received twenty seven medals in Olympic history, Saudi Arabia has never received a medal in this event and is not a favourite in the 2012 Games. Prince Faisal, who also competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has commented, “It is good to be underestimated” about his team’s chances of winning a medal.

The Opening Ceremonies at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the first Games to feature the full programme of dressage, show jumping and eventing.

Zara Phillips, Prince Abdullah bin Miteb and Prince Faisal Al Shalan are following in a one hundred year old tradition of royal participation in the equestrian events at the modern Olympic Games. Although an eclectic collection of equestrian events took place at the 1900 Paris Olympics including polo and mail coach racing, the 1912 Stockholm Olympics were the first Games to feature the full modern program of dressage, show jumping and eventing. From 1912 to 1952, participation in the Olympic equestrian events was restricted to commissioned military officers, a narrow range of eligible athletes that included many of Europe’s princes.

As in London in 2012, there were multiple royal athletes in the 1912 Stockholm equestrian events. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s distant cousin, and nephew by marriage, Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia was a member of the German team while Tsar Nicholas II’s first cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri was considered the most accomplished equestrian on the Imperial Russian team. With such prominent members of Europe’s royal families competing for medals, the Stockholm Olympic stadium also contained royal spectators.

Postcard of Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, Princess Lennart of Sweden printed at the time of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Grand Duke Dmitri’s sister, Marie, who was married to King Gustaf V’s of Sweden’s second son Prince Lennart, at the time of the Games, attended the equestrian events. She described the Games in her memoirs, Education of a Princess, writing, “That Spring the Olympic games were held in Stockholm, and Dmitri, who was to take part in the mounted events, came with his horses and grooms to stay with me at Oakhill. When the games began we passed whole days in the Stadium, a splendid structure put up for the occasion. The Russian contingent, with the exception of the Finnish group, did not distinguish itself in anything, and the officers, although they were all good horsemen, won no prizes. However, nothing happened to my brother and only one of his companions had a bad fall. During the two months that the games lasted, there were many informal fetes and parties . . .Stockholm seemed to me a different place (p. 147).” In contrast to the Imperial Russian team’s disappointing seventh place showing, Prince Karl Friedrich of Prussia and the German team received bronze medals, making the Prussian Prince the first royal Olympic medalist.

Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, bronze medalist in the 1912 Olympic equestrian events.

While both royal athletes and royal spectators were present at the Olympics in both 1912 and 2012, Grand Duchess Marie’s account demonstrates how much the Games have changed in the past century. In 1912, the Olympics lasted for eight weeks instead of seventeen days, there was a single venue for all events and no Olympic village in the modern sense of the term to house the athletes. The equestrian events remained all male competitions until 1952 when civilian riders were permitted to participate, a change that allowed royal women to become Olympic equestrian athletes. Along with sailing, the equestrian events are the only Olympic sports where men and women compete directly against one another.

Zara Phillips, Prince Abdullah bin Miteb and Prince Faisal Al Shalan are following in a one hundred year old tradition of royal participation in Olympic equestrian events. In 1912 and 2012, multiple members of the world’s royal houses competed for medals in a sport traditionally associated with royalty.

Royals at the Olympics: The Involvement of European Royalty in the Modern Olympic Games

King Edward VII opening the 1908 London Olympic Games at White City Stadium

Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, will open the 2012 London Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry will be Olympic Ambassadors. Harry expressed his enthusiasm for this role during his recent visit to Jamaica, telling a reporter, “It’s massively important to get young kids out doing sport. . . I know that when I was at school, sport was the best thing. Being stuck in the classroom wasn’t.” While these senior members of the royal family will perform ceremonial roles at the Games, Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara Phillips hopes to qualify for the equestrian team, having pulled out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of an injury to her horse.

King Gustav V of Sweden and his sons Crown Prince Gustav and Prince William attend the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Prince William`s brother-in-law, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia competed in the equestrian events.

There is a long history of royal involvement in the Modern Olympic Games in both ceremonial and sporting roles. The first Olympics to take place in England occured in 1908. King Edward VII opened the 1908 Olympic Games in London, and his wife, Queen Alexandra presented numerous medals. Edward VII’s granddaughter Princess Mary requested that the marathon begin beneath the nursery windows of Windsor Castle, 42 kilometres (26 miles) from the newly built White City Stadium. This distance remains the official length of the Olympic marathon.

Princess Anne. The Princess was a member of the British equestrian team in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal

Princess Mary’s brother, King George VI opened the 1948 London Olympic Games.The British government had discussed allowing the United States to host these games because food rationing was still in effect but George firmly believed that hosting the Olympics would symbolize England`s recovery from the Second World War. Elizabeth II and Prince Philip have been actively involved in the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games throughout the Commonwealth. The Queen opened the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, where Princess Anne competed in the equestrian events, at the invitation of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Although, the Queen received a letter from Parti Quebecois leader René Lévesque, requesting that refuse Trudeau`s invitation, the royal presence was well received. The Duke of Edinburgh opened the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games on behalf of the Queen.

Princess Anne and her daughter Zara are part of a long tradition of royal equestrians at the Games. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia`s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich competed in the equestrian events at the 1912 Stockholm Games. His sister Marie attended with her husband, Prince William of Sweden and the other members of the Swedish royal family. To Dmitri`s disappointment, his team placed seventh and the Imperial Russian athletes did not receive a single medal in 1912.

King Olav V of Norway. As Crown Prince, he won the gold medal in sailing at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

Sailing is another popular event for royal Olympians. The future King Olav V of Norway (a nephew of King George V of Great Britain) won a gold medal in sailing in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Other prominent royal sailors include Felipe, Prince of Asturias, who was a member of the Spanish sailing team in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. His mother, the future Queen Sofia of Spain and uncle, the future King Constantine II of Greece were both members of the Greek sailing team at the 1960 Rome Olympics, just thirteen years before the Greek monarchy was deposed in 1973.

The presence of Queen Elizabeth II and her family at the 2012 London Olympics marks more than a hundred years of royal involvement in the Modern Olympic Games. Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and Zara Philips will promote London as a tourist destination, and the importance of sport, to an international audience.