The path to saving modern pentathlon from Olympic elimination may be fraught with obstacles. As in, swings, rope mazes, balance beams and warped walls.
Imagine an “American Ninja Warrior” style obstacle course set up in the middle of the Colosseum for the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. This kind of scene could save a sport facing a major crossroads.
As it stands, modern pentathlon – an Olympic sport for more than 100 years – would no longer be on the program in its current form after the Paris Games in 2024.
At issue: The equestrian component of an event combining fencing, swimming, laser shooting, running and show jumping. The equestrian element came under fire during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics when a German trainer was filmed hitting an uncooperative horse during the women’s competition.
The proposed solution: obstacle courses instead of equestrian sports, which sport is experimenting with. There’s still time to revisit the Los Angeles 28 schedule, should the International Olympic Committee approve a change.
For some, the obstacle discipline is the ideal compromise – a way to modernize the sport as the Olympics aim for a younger audience.
For others, the change would tear at the very fabric of a sport closely tied to horses.
No question of debating, time is running out, the modern pentathlon congress meeting in November to vote on the submission of the obstacles to the IOC.
From there, it’s a waiting game to see if enough is enough.
“Changes are not something we like. But we can adapt to it,” said modern pentathlete Sophia Hernandez from Guatemala. “We have to move on. Because we don’t want to lose the Olympics.”
Modern pentathlon has been part of the Olympics since the Stockholm Games in 1912. In reality, however, its roots extend far beyond that, with ‘pentathlons’ dating back to the 18th Olympiad in 708 BC. Then he combined running, jumping, spear throwing, discus and wrestling. To the champion went the title “Victor Ludorum” — winner of the Games.
Over the years, the sport invented by the founder of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, has undergone several transformations. For example, pistol shooting was replaced by laser guns ahead of the London 2012 Games.
With the sport under pressure to scrap the equestrian portion, a focus group of athletes brainstormed possible fifth disciplines. All suggestions were encouraged.
Drone racing was discussed, as well as juggling, before settling on obstacle racing. It’s a nod to the popular American Ninja Warrior TV show.
A series of test events did not include giant pools to cushion the falls of struggling competitors like the TV show, but the sporting challenges were similar. There are also opportunities for scenic backdrops – think beach volleyball on the sands of Copacabana Beach during the Rio 2016 Games.
However, obstacle courses must first be approved.
To further gauge its popularity, modern pentathlon’s governing body, known by its French acronym UIPM, held several test events.
Last month in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, 122 young pentathletes from 21 countries raced over a 10 obstacle course which included various walls (passing over, under and over) as well as swings.
“It was a good challenge,” said Canadian teenager Connor Chow, who won the gold medal race. “Even though some obstacles were scary at first, I really enjoyed it.”
Modern pentathlon, along with boxing and weightlifting, were excluded from the initial list of 28 sports on the LA ’28 Olympic program. It’s a list that included youth sports such as skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, which made their Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Yet there remains a path of inclusion for modern pentathlon, along with boxing and weightlifting, at the IOC’s annual members meeting in 2023. That’s on the condition that each sport shows it has made changes. governance or organizational culture.
Modern pentathlon has deep ties to the IOC. Long-time UIPM President Dr. Klaus Schormann has served on the IOC’s working groups on culture and Olympic education. Its first vice-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, has been re-elected to the IOC Executive Board and could one day be in position for a run for the IOC presidency.
When the IOC actually suggested changing equestrianism, modern pentathlon sought a more inclusive discipline, which could have legs with younger audiences. Data has supported obstacle racing – ‘American Ninja Warrior’ receives over 70,000 annual entries from around the world, while the total number of athletes registered in the UIPM’s global database is 98,000 .
“Every innovation is difficult,” said UIPM Secretary General Shiny Fang. “It’s really about more engagement, universality and excitement. Potentially, we could bring in a new audience. This also counts for the Games.
There are athletes who feel that officials have not listened to their concerns and that there is a way to save the equestrian game. The “Pentathlon United” group was formed with the mission of creating “a new, dynamic and sustainable Olympic future for pentathlon around the world”. The group said the decision to withdraw equestrian sports was “unfounded, unnecessary and reckless”.
“I have no problem with OCR (Obstacle Race) as an independent sport,” he wrote. “However, MP is the sport I love and I think replacing any of the five sports with OCR is ruining our sport. I think OCR was chosen through a completely opaque process.”
Retired modern Egyptian pentathlete Yasser Hefny hears the concerns. But the Olympian stresses that it is for the survival of the sport. Abandoning the Olympics jeopardizes funding and the future.
“We can’t be selfish and think, ‘Yeah, we used to do that,'” said Hefny, who is chairman of the UIPM Athletes Committee. “Instead of being a sport to try and survive all the Olympics, we want to be a top sport.”
Modern pentathlon athletes are expected to ride horses they have never met before. Quickly bonding with them is part of the challenge. Saint Boy had already refused to jump for another rider earlier in the competition.
“The riding event, it’s very unpredictable,” Hernandez said. “The best athletes sometimes get the worst horses and then get knocked out and the four years of preparation are gone in a second. I don’t think that’s very fair.
“It’s this element, where you have to develop a partnership with another animal, that makes the skill set required so diverse and so different from any other sport in the Games,” Choong explained. “Without it, we lose our uniqueness (as well as tradition and history) – risk being increasingly assimilated into other multidisciplinary sports like triathlon.”
On a plinth in his desk, Schormann has a bust of the founder of his sport, de Coubertin. It’s a name Schormann often refers to – how de Coubertin would have embraced change to develop modern pentathlon.
“You always want to go with the times, not against the times,” Schormann said. “Building something for the younger generations to come.”
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