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Course designer Olaf Petersen and his amazing Olympic career


Olaf Petersen is an icon in show jumping. With his type of course design and obstacle design, he has set standards. In Tokyo, the Pähler is in action in a double role - and is thus continuing his astonishing Olympic history.

Olaf Petersen is an icon in show jumping.

With his type of course design and obstacle design, he has set standards.

In Tokyo, the Pähler is in action in a double role - and is thus continuing his astonishing Olympic history.

Pähl - The Suez Canal is passable again for the large cargo ships - and Olaf Petersen is happy about it.

A few days ago, four of his company's containers made their way to Japan.

A delay would not only be annoying, it would also be a real problem for the major sporting event this year, the Olympic Games in Tokyo (July 23rd to August 8th).

Petersen is the official supplier of the riding obstacles used in modern pentathlon.

And not only that: The Pähler is the designer of the course for the pentathletes.

With this he is writing sports history again.

Olaf Petersen is a real icon in show jumping.

He has set standards: in the course design as well as in the obstacle design.

With his way of setting courses, he has "had a significant influence on the development of international show jumping," as the German Equestrian Federation (FN) put it.

In a competition, Petersen is convinced that not only the height and distance of the jumps should be decisive.

“As course designers, we test horse and rider as a team,” says Petersen.

Lines and distances are also important.

Olaf Petersen: Setting standards for show jumping in course design

His international career as a course designer began in 1974 in Donaueschingen.

The following year he was solely responsible.

Petersen varied the conventional course setting.

The riders were given tasks and sometimes had to lengthen and sometimes shorten the gallop jumps.

At first he was ridiculed that the course was too easy, various top athletes objected to the ascent.

Think: out of 50 riders only five remained without errors.

Petersen had steered the sport in a new direction.


Active worldwide: Olaf Petersen, recorded here at home in Pähl, and his company deliver riding obstacles to 70 countries.

© Daniela Petersen-Miecke

A course setter is “the director in a competition”, says the Pähler.

“There must be a build-up of tension.” If everyone manages the course without being dropped, “it's terribly boring”.

If the poles fall in rows or if horse and rider fall, "it is not nice to look at".

There is always a fine line the course designer walks on.

The aim is - besides the aspect of challenging horse and rider - to captivate the audience.

And that is directly noticeable in an arena - the cheering, the holding of breath, the disappointed "Oh" or the thunderous applause.

"When it is really exciting, the viewer rides along."

In 1988, Petersen, who grew up in Münster, caused great astonishment outside the specialist audience. At the Olympics in Seoul, he was a course designer in show jumping and surprised the world public with artistically designed obstacles.

The steep jumps, combinations and oxers were decorated with typical colors and motifs such as dragons, temples and totem poles.

Until now, the obstacles were uniformly red and white or black and white.

When Petersen still rode in international tournaments, in the time of Alwin Schockemöhle, “I thought that was bad.

It looked the same everywhere ”.

Even then he thought to himself: “We could sell our sport in a more attractive way.” In Seoul, he implemented it.

When Petersen presented his concept to the organizers, the reaction was clear: “They were enthusiastic.” South Korean art students helped create the obstacles.

The final jump contained a special note: a Don Quixote in his famous attack on a windmill - it was a reference to the next Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona.

Olaf Petersen: Great success at the 1988 Olympics with a new obstacle concept

Petersen was also clever enough to provide all television reporters with an exposé in several languages ​​about the obstacles and the importance of their respective design.

When the start of show jumping - the last competition in the Olympic Stadium on the final day - was delayed because the required number of ambulances were not there, "the reporters had something to tell," he says.

The publicity he received was not a disadvantage for him, of course.

This was followed by a series of engagements at world equestrian games, world cup finals and European championships.

For the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the FEI World Equestrian Federation nominated him again as a course designer in show jumping.

It had never happened before and it will never happen again.

Because the FEI has stipulated that each course designer may only take over the course setting once at the Olympics.

The mission now in Tokyo does not violate this rule, since the pentathletes are not located under the umbrella of the FEI, but have their own association (UIPM).

Its president approached Petersen during the “Asian Games” 2018, in which the Pähler worked as a course designer.

He should please bring something special to the pentathlon at the Olympics.

Petersen agreed, but then had to get to know the sport first, so he traveled to events.

For the pentathletes, riding is just one discipline besides swimming, fencing, running and shooting (which is now done together).

The athletes compete on horses drawn from them.

The Olympic course must not overwhelm the athletes, "they should be able to show what they can".

And then there was still to deal with Japan because of the obstacles.


New paths: At the 1988 Olympics, Olaf Petersen, as the course designer, used specially designed obstacles for the first time.

The obstacles mainly related to the host country South Korea.

The photo shows the last jump, which points to the next Olympia, in 1992 in Barcelona.

© imago sportfotodienst / Werek

With his company "Olaf Petersen Equestrian Jumps and Course Design", which he founded over 20 years ago, he designs and manufactures themed obstacles at four locations (two of them in Germany) and sells them in 70 countries.

Prior to that, Petersen ran a company that produced envelopes.

His involvement in equestrian sports and at the FEI (from 1993 to 2005 he held several positions on the board) was a "hobby" for many years.

Course designer has now become a profession.

Petersen gives courses for this.

The Pähler is one of only about 30 Level 4 Course Directors.

Son Olaf Petersen junior (53) also belongs to this group - a unique constellation worldwide.

Olaf Petersen: At home in Pähl for over 20 years

Olaf Petersen senior is the best proof that activity keeps you young.

Anyone who experiences him in conversation may not believe that an 83-year-old is sitting in front of you.

“The work,” he says, “keeps me creative and alive.” When the phone rings in the office, the emails come in and inquiries from all over the world are piling up, then he is in his element: “I love that.” His current second wife, Daniela Petersen-Miecke, sometimes has to "get him out of the office" in the evening, he says with a smile.

Petersen switched off his cell phone especially for the appointment with the local newspaper.

The course and obstacle designer turns out to be a pleasantly calm and factual telling conversation partner who also knows how to intersperse charmingly presented anecdotes.

Like the one from a World Cup in the Berlin Deutschlandhalle, in which 20 of 40 riders entered the jump-off with a zero error ride.

Petersen had to take severe criticism - also and especially from the media - for a course that was apparently too easy.

A long time later he was told that the riders had sneaked into the hall the night before and practiced on the course.

Almost unbelievable: After 1988 Petersen wanted to buy Olympic jumping obstacles, especially Don Quixote.

He was denied that they would enter the Olympic Museum.

When, years later, he was giving a course in South Korea and wanted to go to the Olympic Museum, it turned out that none of the obstacles was there because some ignorant person had burned them all.


Ancient and modern united: an obstacle designed by Olaf Petersen at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

© imago / Sven Simon

For the 2004 Games in Athens, Petersen wanted the riders on the course to complete the journey of Odysseus.

His suggestions were not favored by the “Look Department”, which was responsible for overseeing the Olympic appearance.

There is fighting in the Odyssey, which is incompatible with peaceful sports games.

With ancient symbols and ornaments, he managed to please the organizers.

Petersen, who was awarded the German Equestrian Cross in Gold by the FN, has not worked as a course designer in Germany since 2005.

He had been active in German championships for two decades.

In always the same places, it becomes difficult to create something new.

“The riders can read you over the years.” He likes to use the free time to see his daughter Louisa Petersen (20) at competitions.

As a course designer, Olaf Petersen still comes to around 25 tournaments a year worldwide.

Each takes about a week.

Corona also brought a lot to a standstill in horse riding in 2020.

“I haven't built anything abroad for over a year,” he says, a little wistfully.

But things will start again soon: In May there is a tournament in St. Petersburg.

It should be really stressful at the Olympics in Tokyo.

The rugby tournaments take place before the pentathlon in the Tokyo Stadium (50,000 seats).

Petersen and his crew have little time to set up.

“We have the night too,” he says with anticipation.

Riding obstacles and their history: the example of "Daruma"

In Seoul, Olaf Petersen used obstacles for the jumping course for the first time, which were designed with motifs typical of the country.

This was so well received that a corresponding passage with reference to Petersen's action was later reflected in the Olympic contracts.

The Pähler was the official Olympic supplier for the riding obstacles in Sydney, Athens and Beijing.

In Tokyo he is now responsible for designing the pentathlon course.

To do this, Petersen spent a year intensively studying Japanese culture, because something was supposed to emerge beyond any sushi cliché.

One of the 15 obstacles is about the character Daruma.

It is one of the most popular lucky charms in Japan.

It is usually made of paper mache and is weighed down with a weight so that it cannot fall over.

Thus he gives courage to straighten up in every situation.

It is often sold in Buddhist temples.

The figure represents the Buddhist monk and Zen patriarch Bodhidharma (Japanese: Daruma), who is said to have lived in the fifth century.


One of the 15 obstacles in the pentathlon course has the "Daruma", a lucky charm, on the subject.

As an exception, “Tokyo 2020” allows pre-publication.


The depiction of the figure without arms and legs goes back to the fact that the monk allegedly sat in a meditation seat in front of a rock wall for nine years in order to achieve enlightenment.

Since arms and legs are not required for the meditation seat, they are missing from the lucky charm.

Daruma is said to have fallen asleep during meditation.

When he woke up, he was so annoyed by this indiscipline that he cut off his eyelids - hence the large eyes.

Daruma is considered to be a helper in fulfilling wishes.

It comes in different colors: red (for safe birth, harmonious relationships and love), black (wards off all evil and attracts wealth) and yellow (happiness).

A proverb is associated with the figure: Nanakorobi yaoki.

That means something like "Fall down seven times, get up eight times".

The Daruma embodies the principle of persistence and not giving up.

Source: merkur

All sports articles on 2021-04-13

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