Anybody got an extra stirrup?

At the Pan American Games old saddles and balky horses turned the modern pentathlon into a classic of confusion
September 13, 1959

If Alexandre Dumas had ever been asked to invent a sport, the modern pentathlon would undoubtedly have been his choice, for it is based on a concept as romantic and adventurous as any of his novels. Supposing an officer were sent to headquarters with a message of the greatest urgency. He would leap onto a horse and gallop across country, over fences, ditches and streams, as swiftly as his mount could travel. But he runs into the enemy and his horse is downed. On foot, the officer draws his sword and dispatches his foes right and left. Somehow he is disarmed, but he is not defenseless as he reaches for his pistol and picks off a few more. By now he has fought his way to a river and must swim to safety. Arriving on the other bank he proceeds at a run over the rough terrain until he reaches his goal and delivers his message.

The modern pentathlon, stretching over five consecutive days of riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and cross-country running, was thus evolved to test an officer's mettle, but at Chicago last week the Pan American pentathletes from six countries found themselves very sorely tried before they could even be tested. In fact, every country but the U.S. quit—temporarily, as it turned out—the day before the event was to start.

The teams, lodged in a Lake Forest girls' school called Ferry Hall, claimed to be without training facilities, without interpreters, without transportation and without guides to show them how to get to the far-flung pentathlon sites. The swimming pool was scorned as bathtub-size, and although the committee had supplied the name of a livery stable where horses could be rented at $3 an hour, it neglected to supply a way of getting there.

As there was no range for pistol practice, the Mexicans took matters in their own hands and stalked through Ferry Hall's woods, shooting squirrels. Neighbors and squirrel lovers complained, and the police were summoned to explain that this simply was not done. The Mexicans were understanding—any moving target would do—so they thoughtfully moved to the lake front and proceeded to take potshots at the gulls. Before the gull population of Lake Forest was decimated, the police were again on hand to call a halt. The Mexicans returned to Ferry Hall, drew targets on the tree trunks and blazed away.

Finally, a member of the organizing committee soothed the irate coaches with promises of transportation and facilities. Although they felt it came too late, the Latins took the offer in the spirit intended and came back into the games. Nonetheless, the first day's event, a cross-country ride of 3,700 meters over 18 obstacles, got off to an uneasy start. The first business was the drawing for position and for horses for the 16 riders.

Starter No. 1, a Chilean named Jaime Gonzalez, drew a black gelding named Eightball. The horse was saddled, Gonzalez strode to its side, put his foot in the stirrup, and that was as far as he got. Eightball was off, running and bucking in a most talented manner, scattering spectators in all directions. As he disappeared over the horizon, trucks and cars were dispatched in hasty pursuit. The jury decided that since Gonzalez had not passed the starting gate he could ride in last position if and when Eight-ball was retrieved. Leslie Bleamaster of the U.S. started in his place and rode the course without incident.

The first Argentine rider, Juan Valente-Vargas, did not share this good fortune. His horse took a header, slinging the rider face first into a log. But Valente-Vargas captured his mount, climbed aboard and finished the course bleeding at the nose and ears. Later it was found that he had broken two vertebrae in his neck.

Brazil's Lieutenant Wensceslau Malta had a better go, and completed the course within the allotted time of seven minutes, according to a coach's stopwatch. The official electric timer had a different reading. It was soon discovered that the timing device was off by 30 seconds—and every second over the time limit is a penalty point. The Brazilians lodged an immediate protest, as the other riders continued, and although it was agreed to correct all scores at the finish of the event a mild distrust set in.

The distrust changed to complete outrage after the second Chilean rider, Gerardo Cortes, returned on his own two feet, carrying his saddle, which had been supplied by the games committee. The saddle was rotten and had torn apart just above the billets. (I looked at the saddle: you could pull the leather apart with your fingers underneath, though the top looked in good condition.) The Chilean coach descended on the jury like an avenging angel, demanding a reride for his boy; but the pentathlon rules state that a rider has the right to inspect and reject any equipment on the horse, so, therefore, the onus was on Cortes for not having made the inspection. The reride was not granted. This was the ultimate injury; the coach again withdrew the Chilean team, treating listeners to a tirade that would have turned Molotov chartreuse with envy. Making plentiful use of words like "shame" and "treachery," the Chilean demanded an explanation for the presence of such a piece of equipment on the grounds. No real explanations were offered, but heartfelt apologies were tendered, and after appeals to his sportsmanship, the Chilean coach again agreed to let his team continue.

By this time the U.S.'s Robert Miller, an English and history teacher from Seattle, had completed the course under the time limit, and Mexico's Jose Perez, an individual pentathlon gold-medal winner in 1955, had started his round. He had drawn a palomino named Breeze, and as the horse approached the 18th and final fence, an in-and-out, just before the finish line, he was obviously wavering. He stumbled over the first element of the fence and then fell with a crash into the second. He did not get up. Perez, unhurt, pulled the poles off the horse and tried to get him to his feet, but Breeze refused to budge. Suddenly people were swarming all over the horse, kicking and whipping. At last, Breeze decided he would be more comfortable on the move and staggered to his feet. Perez climbed aboard and pushed him through the last few hundred yards to the finish. But the fall had been so costly in time-penalty points that it was the finish of Perez' hopes of a second Pan American win.

As Perez struggled with Breeze, Uruguay's lone representative, Walter Belen-Ramos, was having his troubles with Grey Boy on the course. Belen-Ramos decided to take a short cut, which is allowed by the rules in certain places, but the area he had chosen when walking the course earlier had now filled with spectators. Before Belen-Ramos could stop or even swing Grey Boy aside, the horse had run down a spectator and kicked the headlight out of a car. As he finally slowed Grey Boy, Belen-Ramos heard shouting and turned to find the irate car owner in full pursuit. Belen-Ramos decided to become a hit-and-run horseman and quickly gave Grey Boy his head.

By now Chile's Gonzalez had been presented with an apparently subdued Eightball and rode him to the starting gate, which was situated next to a woods filled with underbrush. The countdown began. Gonzalez leaned forward in the saddle. The starter said, "Go!", and Eightball raced off into the woods. Nothing could be seen but shaking bushes and nothing heard but the sound of cracking branches. Then the underbrush parted and Gonzalez, on foot, lurched out, carrying a stirrup, which he flung to the ground in a fine display of rage. Eightball decided to check on things and peeked around a tree. Gonzalez grabbed him. Aware that the clock was still running, he hastily replaced the stirrup, climbed aboard, clapped the spurs and took off in a cloud of dust. They stayed together until the fifth fence.

Gonzalez was able to capture Eight-ball again, but this time he decided not to remount. Back he walked into the start, leading Eightball. The scorekeepers, knowing he was the last competitor, started from their posts. But the Chileans had other ideas, and after an excited conference with Gonzalez, rushed over to the jury to inform them that Gonzalez would finish the course. With a certain reluctance, Gonzalez again mounted Eightball and started off around the course at a walk. And that's the way he finished, too, in just under an hour. Anyone waiting for a message brought by Gonzalez would have to be a little patient.

The fencing, on the second day, did not get off to a very auspicious start either. For one thing, the fencing judges did not turn up. Fortunately, Ben Furth, a former pentathlete, wandered into the Naval armory just to watch the day's event and was promptly pressed into service. He had a long day, too, as the fencing took 13 hours. And it was not without an untoward incident. While the U.S.'s Leslie Bleamaster was fencing with Mexico's Antonio Almada, a lunge by Bleamaster caught the Mexican out of position and the American's épée was inadvertently driven into Almada's left hand.

From then on, though, things went more or less smoothly. Brazil's Malta took a firm hold on first place in the individual competition, though Bob Miller of the U.S., who had won the riding, also won the shooting competition and finished second in swimming. (The American team of Bleamaster, Miller and George Lambert had the team medal all but clinched by the third day.) The duel between Malta and Miller wasn't actually settled until the cross-country run on the fifth, and final, day. Miller, trailing by 147 points, was to start the course one minute after Malta. To win the pentathlon, he had to catch up with Malta; but as they ran the course, the distance between them remained more or less the same. Then, when Malta emerged from a quarry, which was roughly halfway around the course, other Latin Americans who had already finished ran out to spur their fellow Latino home. They took turns pacing him. Down the homestretch Perez of Mexico ran on one side and Belen-Ramos of Uruguay on the other, shouting encouragement. Malta finished strong, bettering his own personal mark by more than a minute, while far behind, the exhausted Miller staggered along in a state of near collapse. He lost so many points that he finished fourth, behind Malta and U.S. Teammates Lambert and Bleamaster.

It is probably significant that Malta, the man who best survived the mental and physical tribulations of the five-day event, is a paratrooper in the Brazilian army and has made 89 jumps.

PHOTONEAR-TRAGIC MOMENT OCCURRED WHEN HORSE PITCHED ARGENTINA'S VALENTE-VARGAS FACE FIRST INTO LOG PHOTODISGUSTED GONZALEZ PONDERS HORSES PHOTOWOUNDED ALMADO THINKS ABOUT EPEES PHOTOVICTORIOUS MALTA BURSTS INTO TEARS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)