Prince Philip, a royal with a deep connection to sport

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The many tributes from the world of sport have already demonstrated what an important part it had played in the life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday aged 99. 

As President of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), he was an active figure in international sport for over 30 years. He opened an Olympic Games, addressed the Olympic Congress and even on one occasion acted as starter for an Olympic event

He was perhaps best known internationally for his time as FEI President.

In 1956, he had accompanied The Queen on the Royal Yacht Britannia to the Olympic equestrian events, held in Stockholm that year because quarantine regulations in Australia made it impossible for them to be held alongside the other sports in Melbourne.

Eight years later, in December 1964, 35 FEI delegates elected him President at their General Assembly in Brussels. He succeeded Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who had stood down because of ill health.

Prince Philip was destined to become the longest serving FEI President in history and was succeeded 22 years later by his daughter Princess Anne.

FEI President Ingmar de Vos paid tribute to “a man of incredible energy. His legacy particularly at the FEI will live on for many years.”

Prince Philip was an accomplished equestrian sportsman and served as President of the International Equestrian Federation for 22 years ©Getty Images
Prince Philip was an accomplished equestrian sportsman and served as President of the International Equestrian Federation for 22 years ©Getty Images

Prince Philip was still active as a sportsman when he assumed the Presidency. He had taken up polo as a young man before the second world war.

“I had just got as far as wielding a stick in a polo pit and doing some stick and ball practice on a pony before war broke out,” he said.

After the war, on naval service in Malta, and encouraged by Lord Mountbatten, he played for a team called “The Shrimps”. He remained an enthusiastic player until 1971.

He gave his support to Lord Cowdray’s plans to develop polo in Sussex and in 1955 was instrumental in establishing the Guards Club at Windsor Home Park.

This week the club has cancelled its fixtures for the official period of mourning and said in a tribute: “His Royal Highness was a passionate advocate of polo at Guards Polo Club for more than six decades and his wise counsel will be much missed by our chairman, Board of Directors, players, members and staff.”

As FEI President, the Prince often offered controversial ideas.

When he addressed the International Olympic Committee’s congress at Varna in 1973, he referred to some “suggestions” he had made the previous year.

“When I tried them out here on a member of the IOC he nearly had an apoplectic fit, so I thought I would spare him and other members of the IOC who feel the same way,” he said.

He did “strongly urge the IOC to consider every possible alternative to the problem of size”.

Prince Philip had also been an active polo player ©Getty Images
Prince Philip had also been an active polo player ©Getty Images

In 1973, Olympic regulations stipulated strict amateurism but the movement was starting to debate the question of wider eligibility.

“I would make only one urgent appeal to the IOC – please do not expect my Federation to decide between professional and amateur horses,” Prince Philip said.

By this time he had taken up four in hand driving which he said “could well be looked upon as the equivalent of the chariot races of the ancient Games”.

During his time as President, it had become an FEI discipline. He competed at six World championships and was part of Great Britain’s gold medal winning team in 1980.

That year the very future of the Olympic Movement seemed at stake. He headed to Lausanne to represent the FEI at a crisis meeting of international sport.

American President Jimmy Carter had called for a boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was strongly supported by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“I was frankly astounded to hear that he had arrived in view of the attitude of the British Government towards the Games,” IOC President Lord Killanin said.

After the meetings, Thomi Keller, the Swiss head of the International Rowing Federation, read an official statement.

“The International Olympic Federations, being aware of the reasons advanced by different Governments for putting pressure on the National Olympic Committees to boycott Moscow, protest energetically against such pressure. They declare their belief that the boycotting of a sporting event is an improper way of trying to obtain a political end and that the real victims of any such action are the sportsmen and women,” Keller said.

Prince Philip was a regular presence at sports events in Britain ©Philip Barker
Prince Philip was a regular presence at sports events in Britain ©Philip Barker

The highly respected British writer Ian Wooldridge wrote in the Daily Mail that Keller “said deliberately and clearly ‘with Prince Philip’s authority’. A lot of people collaborated in that statement. Prince Philip put the finishing touches”.

In his front page story, Wooldridge added: “In the only way a British royal can publicly rebuke a Prime Minister, a defiant Prince Philip yesterday informed Mrs Thatcher that he finds her Olympic boycott campaign improper.”

There were official denials and some accused Keller of “wordplay”.

Yet Killanin later insisted in his memoirs that the Prince had supported the statement.

“We lunched at the same table. It is clear that in his conversation with other people at the table, some of them formed the impression he was opposed to the Thatcher support of the boycott,” Killanin said.

Prince Philip was asked whether he would be able to attend, as his role of FEI President required him to do. “I see no way I can go,” he said gloomily.

Those who did go to Moscow included the now World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, who won 1,500m Olympic gold in the Russian capital.

In a social media tribute to Prince Philip, Coe said: “British sport has lost one of its strongest and, on occasion, boldest advocates. He had an unflinching view of the role of sport in all our neighbourhoods.”

The Prince had first attended the 1948 Olympics in London. As the cauldron was lit by fair haired medical student John Mark, some mistakenly believed that the equally blond prince had actually done so.

A few days later at a rainswept Home Park in Windsor, there was no case of mistaken identity. Prince Philip, wearing a mackintosh against the rain, fired the starting pistol for the cycling road race.

In 1956, as representative of The Queen, he travelled to Melbourne to open the Olympic Games.

On the opening day, he set out in an open top car displaying his personal standard, as crowds lined the streets to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

“You have travelled halfway around the world to honour the Olympics in the city of Melbourne,” Organising Committee Chairman Wilfrid Kent Hughes told him.

“We would ask you to convey to our patron of the Games, her gracious Majesty the Queen, the warmest of all greetings from every man, woman and child present at this feast of sport and festival of international goodwill.”

The Prince, in full naval uniform, then made the simple declaration to open the Games.

Later, he watched some sport. By the time he arrived at the gymnastics hall, the gold medal winning Hungarian squad, including the remarkable Ágnes Keleti, had just finished their performance. On request, they repeated their routine for the Prince.

By this time, he had also begun a long association with the Commonwealth Games.

Prince Philip, left, had a long association with the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images
Prince Philip, left, had a long association with the Commonwealth Games ©Getty Images

This week CGF President Louise Martin paid her own tribute to a man who “will be forever remembered for a lifetime of dedicated service to the Commonwealth”.

His first had been in 1954, when he arrived midway through the Vancouver Games to “a trumpet fanfare and stirring ovation from the crowd”.

He visited the Athletes’ Village and “dined informally cafeteria style with as many of the athletes as possible. Officialdom was kept to a minimum,” organisers reported proudly.

At the Closing Ceremony, he told the crowd: “I attended these Games as a spectator, one of the many thousands who watched the efforts of organisers and athletes with appreciation and delight.

“You will be able to go home and say that you know we are a family of nations. Your friendly rivalry here has drawn every one of Her Majesty’s realms and territories closer together.”

In July 1955, he agreed to become President of the CGF, a role he would hold for over thirty years. He succeeded Earl of Gowrie who had died earlier in the year. By a stroke of fate, Gowrie had also been the Prince’s immediate predecessor as President of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) six years before.

In 1958, Prince Philip piloted a Heron aircraft of the “Queen’s flight” to Cardiff for the Games.

A Baton Relay with a message from the Queen to the Commonwealth athletes had been introduced for the first time.

The Prince read a message ending with the words: “I am greatly looking forward to being with you at the end of next week.” In fact the Queen was unable to attend through illness and the Prince carried out the programme himself.

It was the beginning of a long and happy association with the “Friendly Games”, though it was not until 1970 in Edinburgh that the Queen joined him at the Games.

Tributes have been paid to Prince Philip at all sport across Britain this weekend, including in the Premier League ©Getty Images
Tributes have been paid to Prince Philip at all sport across Britain this weekend, including in the Premier League ©Getty Images

In the years which followed, he would usually read the message from the Baton at the Opening Ceremony. The closing would be performed by the Queen, though they reversed this sequence in 1978 for the Edmonton Games.

In 1967, his Opening Ceremony duties even extended to  the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.

Unfortunately heavy rain dogged proceedings. The Prince scorned an umbrella as he reviewed the parade.

As he stood at the microphone, he asked with characteristic humour, “is anything coming out of this thing?” 

He then spoke in English, French and even gave a word of welcome in Spanish, the other official language of the Pan American Games.

Veteran Canadian sports writer Jim Coleman wrote: “Prince Philip came 8,000 miles to stand in a rainstorm. In doing so he reflected the spirit of Winnipeg. He stood there soaking wet and pretended he didn’t even know it was raining.”

He remains the only person to have opened Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American Games and may well have officiated at more top level sporting events than anyone else.

His own sporting philosophy had been forged in his schooldays. He was a pupil at Salem school in Germany and then Gordonstoun in Scotland, both established by German educationalist Kurt Hahn.

The school’s emphasis on personal reliance and physical wellbeing later inspired the Prince to establish the “Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme” for young people.

It is designed to “build the skills, confidence and resilience they need to make the most out of life”.

The scheme has now spread to over 130 countries. It is possibly his greatest legacy.

Prince Philip's sporting connections extended to cricket as he was twice President of the MCC ©Philip Barker
Prince Philip’s sporting connections extended to cricket as he was twice President of the MCC ©Philip Barker

There were considerable echoes of Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s philosophy. Prince Philip became a patron of a modern pentathlon, a sport devised by the Baron himself.

The Prince served in the Royal Navy, where he threw the javelin in services competition but after the Second World War, his sporting activities also included cricket, another legacy of his time at Gordonstoun.

A few days before his wedding to Princess Elizabeth – now The Queen – in November 1947, the minutes of the prestigious MCC reveal that they had agreed to offer honorary membership. He was then known as Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

Within two years he had become club President, the first of two occasions he would serve in the role, though this did not help him when he turned out for Mersham Le Hatch, a village in Kent, in their match against Aldington.

He was dismissed for a duck, out leg before wicket to the first ball. He also took three wickets and was described as “the ideal type of village player, wasting no time and making no fuss”.

He continued to enjoy cricket, both as player and later spectator for the rest of his life. A few weeks before the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, he was to be found at the tiny riverside ground of East Molesey to see the local team play the Australians at the start of the tour.

Some of the proceeds of the match were destined for the National Playing Fields Association, an organisation of which he was President.

A few years later, in the same cause, he led a team against an eleven raised by the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel. Philip’s bowling had once been described as of “variable length” but he still managed to dismiss his host.

“The Duke takes an easy five paces up to the wicket, brings his arm well over and delivers a medium pace ball,” a report from the match said.

Prince Philip and the Queen were married for more than 70 years and regularly visited sports events, including horse racing ©Getty Images
Prince Philip and the Queen were married for more than 70 years and regularly visited sports events, including horse racing ©Getty Images

The Prince had also learnt to sail while at school. The Island Sailing Club on the Isle of Wight made a wedding gift of a dragon class yacht called “Bluebottle” and the couple were both installed as honorary members of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). The Prince later became RYA President and meetings of the organisation were often held on board the Royal Yacht Britannia during Cowes Week.

He developed a friendship with Uffa Fox, a distinguished boat builder and sailor on the Isle of Wight. They sailed together aboard Coweslip, though in 1962, there were unwanted headlines when the boat capsized. The Prince and Fox were both thrown into the water.

Sarah Treseder, RYA chief executive, also paid tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. “As a sailing community we share the nation’s sadness following the loss of Prince Phillip,” Treseder said.

“He will be missed by the RYA family and we pay tribute to not just a keen, competitive and successful yachtsman, but also an outstanding President of our Association who dedicated many years to helping protect and promote our sport.”

It was perhaps appropriate that the Prince’s final public engagement in 2017 should be connected with sport. He wore the traditional “egg and bacon” MCC club tie as he cut the ribbon to re-open the Warner Stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground.





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