— Published 3 May 2022

The modern pentathlon takes the horses away but keeps the obstacles

The horses are out, but the fences remain. The International Union of Modern Pentathlon (UIPM) lifted a corner of the veil on Monday 2 May on the fifth discipline that is supposed to replace equestrianism after the Paris 2024 Games. A corner, only, but it should not be enough to extinguish the controversy.

According to a press release from the international body, the new discipline could closely resemble the old one, but with one major absence: horses. After a long consultation process and the study of some sixty proposals, the working group on the fifth discipline has come up with a fairly conventional proposal: an obstacle race.

Two versions remain on the table, explains the UIPM. Which ones? A mystery. But the details will soon be known, as they will be tested after the 2022 World Cup final, scheduled for the end of June in Ankara, Turkey.

The tests will be carried out in real-life conditions, combining the two versions of the obstacle course with swimming, fencing and laser running (running and shooting). Once the trials are completed, the final decision will be taken by the UIPM Congress.

The body chaired by the German Klaus Schormann explains: this new obstacle discipline meets, in its two versions, all thirteen criteria established at the time of the decision to remove horse riding from the landscape. Among them, the respect of the DNA of the modern pentathlon, i.e. the search for a complete athlete as imagined by Pierre de Coubertin; a reduction in costs; greater accessibility throughout the world; a dynamic choice, likely to appeal to a young public; inexpensive and easy to set up equipment.

The result, although still unclear (the UIPM did not provide any pictures or sketches illustrating the new discipline), seems to make sense. By sending the horses back to the stables, but keeping a form of obstacles, the modern pentathlon remains faithful to its tradition, while eliminating the animal element that is the source of frequent criticism and controversy.

The end of the soap opera soon? Not likely. Before the UIPM puts the matter to bed for good, it will have to convince the IOC of the relevance of its choice. The stakes are high. The Executive Board of the Olympic body has provisionally excluded modern pentathlon from the programme of the Los Angeles 2028 Games, pending the identification of a substitute discipline for equestrian.

At this stage, it is not certain that the obstacle course will appeal to Thomas Bach and the other members of the Executive Committee, even if it seems to tick all the boxes, particularly in terms of cost and simplicity.

Another uncertainty is the reaction of the community. Coincidentally, the announcement of the new discipline comes at a time when opposition is being heard. A group of athletes hostile to the withdrawal of equestrian, called Pentathlon United, wrote to the IOC asking Thomas Bach to “conduct a full and independent investigation into the governance and honesty of the UIPM and the consultation process on the 5th Discipline”.

Among the signatories are a handful of past and present modern pentathlon greats, including reigning Olympic champion Joe Choong of Britain.

Pentathlon United, which was formed last year to oppose the decision to withdraw horse riding, says it conducted its own survey of 310 athletes around the world. The vast majority of them (over 85%) felt that the UIPM did not take into account the opinion of competitors in its management of the sport. Ninety-five per cent said they were unhappy with the way the body has conducted its work on the new discipline.

More worryingly, 77% of the athletes questioned suggested that they might give up their sport after the withdrawal of equestrian.