— Published 26 October 2022

“Modernity is the DNA of our sport”

Its Olympic future is still in doubt, but the modern pentathlon cannot be accused of keeping both feet in the same shoe. Provisionally excluded from the Los Angeles 2028 Games programme – like boxing and weightlifting – the discipline invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin is working hard to keep its place. With one obsession: to prove that modernity is not only one of the two components of its name.

To do this, its international body, the UIPM (International Union of Modern Pentathlon), has chosen to let the athletes speak. On Tuesday 25 October, it brought together a generous handful of them to act as spokespersons for the new discipline that is to replace equestrianism, the obstacle course, during an online press conference organised from its headquarters in Monaco.

The athletes were invited to speak with their words and their hearts to defend the evolution of the modern pentathlon. They did so with zeal and conviction, without letting any doubt creep into their words. Note: all of them had been carefully selected by the UIPM. Not surprisingly, they played their roles perfectly.

The opponents? The British Joe Choong, reigning Olympic and world champion, is one of the leaders. He has never made a secret of his hostility to the abandonment of horse riding. But he told AFP that he had not been “informed by the UIPM” of the press conference. “I think as an Olympic champion I have the right to be invited to speak,” he suggested.

According to a survey of 200 competitors who have taken part in one or other of the four full-scale tests of the obstacle course in recent months, the new discipline has won them over. No less than 88% of them declared themselves satisfied or very satisfied with the experience.

One of the most enthusiastic was the Frenchwoman Elodie Clouvel. Vice Olympic champion in 2016 in Rio, the world number 3 was present in Monaco on Tuesday 25 October. She admitted that she had not yet had the opportunity to try obstacle racing. But according to her, the wheel is turning in the right direction.

Pierre de Coubertin invented our sport and named it so that it would remain modern,” she explained. “Of course, change can be scary. I myself was keen to learn horse riding when I started. But you have to look beyond yourself. Modernity is the DNA of our sport. I haven’t tested the obstacle course, but it is inclusive, dynamic and visual. It is the right choice. We have to evolve with each Olympiad. This new evolution is in line with society.”

Yasser Hefni, the Egyptian president of the UIPM Athletes’ Commission, agrees. “The obstacle course will strengthen us, especially in the run-up to the Los Angeles 2028 Games, because people will make the connection with the Ninja Warrior show, one of the most famous in the US,” he suggests. “It’s on NBC, which is also the channel for the Olympics. With this new discipline, we will reach young people. We will also be able to better develop modern pentathlon in Africa, where riding is very limited.”

Shiny Fang, the UIPM secretary general, explained: “We are committed to providing the obstacle course equipment to our national federations, but also to the competition organisers.”

What’s next? The first steps look like they will be easy. The choice to replace horse riding with obstacle course racing will be put to the vote at the next UIPM Congress, scheduled for 12 and 13 November. Barring a huge surprise, it will be adopted by a large majority.

The new discipline will then be integrated into youth competitions, including juniors, as of next year. For the seniors, the big leap will wait until after the Paris 2024 Games.

But the litmus test will be played out in Lausanne. If adopted by the Congress, the UIPM will submit the obstacle course to the IOC Programme Commission. It will then have to be validated by the Executive Board and then put to the vote at the Session in autumn 2023. For the modern pentathlon, its leaders and its athletes, another form of obstacle course.