Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mexico's Irish Institute: the equestrian team and the saga of Mexico's first Olympic gold.

At the London Olympics, held in 1948, Mexican General Humberto Mariles led Mexico's equestrians to victory - they won two gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. In the process they defeated highly regarded European competitors.

Rider Raul Uriza won silver at the "Grand Pix of Nations" event. I met Colonel Uriza when I helped start the Irish Institute, a prestigious school for boys, in Mexico City in 1966. Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, sought to add as much added value as possible to the new school, located at the fringes of some of the most luxurious suburbs of Mexico's capital.  He came up with the novel idea of creating a riding school on what was then a vacant grassy lot in front of the Irish Institute. 

Fr. Gregorio Lopez, a Spanish Legionary from Burgos, was charged with doing a deal with a local stable. Every day, the stable hands brought about 15 horses to the Irish Institute's manege - surrounded by a hastily erected white picket fence. It was Fr. Gregorio's idea to invite Colonel Uriza to direct the lessons.

On gala occasions, the young riders from the Irish Institute wore their dark green school blazers, white jodphurs and black riding boots with brown leather tops creating eye-catching publicity for the Legion's new school in Mexico.

I got to know Raul Uriza quite well - although I always addressed him as "Colonel." He was an affable, easy going man with a wiry athletic build. He told me a little about the Mexican odyssey at the London Olympics.

In early January 1948, at the Club Hipico Frances in the capital, General Mariles discovered a sorrel-colored, one-eyed horse called "Earring" (Arete) - after his first ride, the General fell in love with the stallion. When time came for the General to organize Mexico's team for the Olympics and for the preparatory competitions leading up to the games in London, he ran afoul of then Mexican President Miguel Aleman. The President sought to cancel the European tour saying "there is no way you can win riding those cart-horses and a one-eyed stallion."

Despite the Presidential order, General Mariles set out with his team to Galveston, Texas, where they caught a ship bound to Italy. When they arrived to Rome, the Mexican ambassador was waiting for them with an arrest warrant - charging the team with disobeying military orders, desertion, embezzlement and misuse of public funds. The General refused to return to Mexico. Meanwhile, he had invited Pope Pius XII to come watch the team the day after they arrived. The Pope accepted - and by so doing may have saved Mariles career.

The Mexican team came in third at the Concorso Ippico Internazionale. This win persuaded President Aleman to calm down.

At the London Olympics, General Mariles rode the one-eyed "Arete to win the gold medal. In addition to Colonel Uriza's silver the Mexican team also won the gold in the team jumping event.

Colonel Uriza always had an impish smile despite the tough discipline he demanded from his equestrian students at the Irish Institute. He and I often chatted, standing by the fence, watching the young riders. Invariably, in the dry season, I would end up with my double-breasted (Legionary style) suit covered in dust, happy to have heard the stories of the unassuming Colonel who had participated in such an epic saga on the road to Mexico's first Olympic gold medal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story!