Modern pentathlon is becoming more, well, modern. The sport is dropping its equestrian component, reportedly in favor of cycling.
The UIPM, modern pentathlon’s highest governing body, confirmed the change on Thursday but would not say that cycling was the final choice for a fifth discipline in the sport, which also includes fencing, cross-country running, shooting and swimming. (The equestrian aspect of the sport previously included show jumping; the 2024 Olympics in Paris will be the last time it appears).
The move originally was suggested after an incident at the recent Olympics in Tokyo drew the world’s attention – and not in a good way.
According to The Guardian, German competitor Annika Schleu, who had been in the gold medal position before the show jumping aspect of the competition, became emotional in the ring after the mount she had been assigned, Saint Boy, refused to jump and shied around the course, unable to be controlled.
Schleu punched the horse several times, and German coach Kim Raisner, was also seen punching Saint Boy (and urging Schleu to "really hit" the horse). Raisner was sent home from Tokyo, Schleu finished in 31st place and the global outcry (social media played no small part in it), prompted UIPM to conduct a full review as well as to discipline Raisner.
Inside The Games notes that in a briefing sent to members of the UIPM Executive Board, the UIPM warned the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would "only accept a proposal without riding" for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic program, set to be decided in December.
For a sport that values its Olympic position and at a time when multiple other sports are jockeying to be included in the Games, ignoring the IOC's warning is simply too big a risk to take.
IUPM in a statement noted the change was necessary, and that modern pentathlon must "present a new, fresh perspective to the TV audience in order to compete with new sports" at the Games. It also outlined a list of criteria for the proposed fifth discipline, including being low-cost, easily understandable, minimal injury rates and not falling under "another IOC-recognized Federation's governance", but did not reference cycling directly. UIPM noted the new discipline must also fit inside their new pentathlon stadium and urban settings, fit within their new 90-minute format and continue their handicap start and continuous event concept.
In other words, we'll have to wait and see what is proposed.
Tom Shephard, Chair of USA Pentathlon, the national governing body for the sport, released a statement, in part, noting, "I greatly respect the history and tradition of the modern pentathlon. I have appreciated the grace, power and spectacle of the equestrian discipline of riding in our sport, and what it takes to develop synergy between rider and animal. That being said, it has limited our ability as a Federation to be more inclusive, more broadly participated and viewed. Further, it has proven to be difficult and expensive from a fiscal standpoint…. We appreciate that this decision, post-Paris, will impact all of us going forward. Recognizing this, I hope that it provides us all with a tremendous opportunity to grow the sport of pentathlon in the US and look forward to your input and participation as we move forward."
It is certainly possible that a change to cycling could make the sport more accessible to amateurs – who still have to master all five disciplines – but one thing is for sure: there is plenty of discussion on both sides of the issue.
Reuters noted that British modern pentathlete Joe Choong, who won the men's event in Tokyo, told the Daily Telegraph that removal of the equestrian aspect is "very sad for the sport.”
"Without horse riding, or if we changed it for another sport, it's not modern pentathlon," Choong said. "I don't want to grow up and tell my future kids that I'm the Olympic champion of a sport that doesn't exist." Many modern pentathletes agreed; more than 650 gave Klaus Schormann, the current IUMP president, a vote of no confidence, even going so far as to ask for his resignation – although it is unclear whether another administration would keep riding as a discipline and risk losing the sport's placement in the Olympics.
In The Guardian, however, another British Olympian Greg Whyte, who also won a world silver medal in 1994, said he could understand the change. “I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing,” he told reporters. “Back in the day, the fencing part alone used to take 14 hours, while in Paris the whole event will last just 90 minutes. All sports evolve, and no sport is immune from change in the modern TV era.”
Animal rights group PETA weighed in as well – unsurprisingly, in favor of eliminating the equestrian aspect of the sport.
"It doesn't hurt a bicycle to hit it or kick it, so this is an Olympic-size win for horses and cyclists," PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo said in a statement.
The German Olympic Sports Federation claimed the problems that took place during the competition resulted from the IUPM’s rules barring riders from learning much about their horses prior to the competition; under current rules, riders have about 20 minutes to familiarize themselves with their mounts. According to CBS Sports, numerous riders struggled to control their horses during the equestrian leg of the competition; earlier in the competition, Saint Boy refused to allow the Russian Olympic Committee's Gulnaz Gubaydullina to ride him.
Schormann refuted these claims, stating that the "not so nice" moments shouldn't detract from the "absolutely excellent" horses and "high quality" facilities. Schormann went on to state that the riders, rather than their mounts, were at fault for their struggles in the pentathlon; one of the integral aspects of the sport is the fact that riders need to be using an unfamiliar horse.
"We tested (the horses) and they were well prepared, and there is no basis for athletes to complain," Schormann told the Irish Examiner. "It is only because of the athletes themselves if they were not successful in some parts of the competition."
The sport was the idea of Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the early 1900s, who said the five disciplines were intended to simulate the experience of a 19th century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines; the individual would, at least theoretically, have to ride an unfamiliar horse across unknown terrain, defend himself by both shooting a pistol and using a sword, and then both run and swim in order to deliver the message.
Those speaking out against the change cite de Coubertin, noting that the sport will not be consistent with his vision without the equestrian component.
It’s not the first time the relatively low-profile sport has made headlines; in 2013, the IOC removed wrestling from the Games in favor of keeping modern pentathlon. (It quickly reversed course, reinstating wrestling while also maintaining modern pentathlon on the Olympic program).
The sport traces its roots to ancient Greece, where it included running, jumping, spear-throwing, discus and wrestling. The modern version made its debut at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
In 2016, Shephard told SDM that although the sport is unusual, “it’s a fascinating sport and it’s disproportionately visible in the IOC. It has patrons like Prince Albert of Monaco who really do support and promote it. As a brand, it’s kind of fascinating; I like to refer to it as modern-day pirates: you have to be able to swim, shoot a pistol, run, ride a horse and use a sword. If we can market it that way, we can keep it interesting and relevant to the public, particularly to youthful athletes, who are our future.”