When British pentathlete Joe Choong won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August, the last thing he was expecting was social media bile. He still sounds shocked, several months later, at the messages of hate that dampened the euphoria.
“I was told I’ve been torturing horses for the last 11 years. That’s just not true,” he sighs. “It’s been pretty unpleasant.”
Even worse, the anger actually had nothing to do with him. It was part of the early fallout from what quickly became one of the memes of the Summer Games – as Tokyo readied for the closing ceremony, social media was erupting in response to the sight of tearful German gold medal contender Annika Schleu and her trainer hitting and shoving a distraught horse that clearly didn’t want to jump. Some athletes got death threats.
That video, which almost certainly ended Schleu’s career, at once introduced millions to the niche multi-discipline sport and swiftly put them off forever.
It also triggered a chain of events that could destroy the one event created especially for the Modern Olympics, by its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin – who saw the military-inspired combination of riding, swimming, running, fencing and shooting as a worthy counterpart to the Ancient Greek pentathlon, which embodied the ultimate athlete, or Victor Ludorum.
An explosive civil war has been raging since late last year, when the governing body, World Pentathlon (UIPM), suddenly announced it was going to drop riding, without fully consulting and against the wishes of most of the athletes, including several Olympic champions and medallists. Nearly 700 of them, including Choong and reigning women’s Olympic champion, Kate French, signed a petition calling for the executive board and long serving president Klaus Schormann to resign.
Even Hungary’s former actual president got into the act – Pál Schmitt, who is a double Olympic fencing gold medallist and serves on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), slammed Schormann’s decision and backed the athletes. Several international pentathlon bodies, from Sweden to Kyrgyzstan, objected, while the Danish Modern Pentathlon Federation launched a legal challenge.
“For the pentathlon, this is death,” responded Rio Olympics gold medallist Alexander Lesun at the time. In the confusion that followed, organisers of the 2028 Olympic Games left pentathlon off their initial list of events.
World Pentathlon ploughed on regardless. In its latest salvo, it announced at the start of May that riding could be replaced by obstacle racing – which threatens to turn the 100-year-old sport into a better-dressed version of the thoroughly unserious It’s a Knockout. A decision will be made after test events. In a new survey of past and present elite athletes, 95% were unhappy with the decision, while nearly 8 out of 10 said they could quit if it goes ahead – they have been campaigning instead for the reform of a discipline that they believe the UIPM has neglected for too long and made unsafe.
The athletes’ body, Pentathlon United, hit back, demanding IOC President Thomas Bach intervene to investigate World Pentathlon, which they accuse of opacity, backroom dealmaking and steamrollering over their interests and concerns: “The UIPM’s consultation process has been illusory at best, and, it would appear, designed only to legitimise a predetermined outcome (which we are advised will be obstacle racing in collaboration with World OCR).” UIPM did not respond to my request for comment.
Many athletes, including Ukraine’s three-times Olympic medallist Pavel Tymoshenko, made a link between the decision and the presence on the UIPM Executive Board of Robert Stull, who has held senior roles in World Obstacle, which has been trying to get the sport into the Olympics.
Suddenly, the fascinating but tiny sport is making headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of a compelling story about an event inspired by 19th-century military derring-do and a quest to find the “ultimate athlete”, this has become a sorry tale that takes in animal welfare, rebellion, pillow fighting and a depressing insight into the sort of cliquey autocratic governance that has long plagued sports of all kinds the world over.
To understand modern pentathlon’s present predicament, we need to go back to the origins of what is a quintessential European sport. Most top current athletes hail from France, Britain, Hungary, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, with China, Korea and Egypt only recently starting to muscle in.
When reviving the Olympic Games in 1896 – an exclusively European affair apart from a few Americans – French educator and sports idealist De Coubertin thought it should have a new flagship sport.
He modelled the disciplines on what he considered to be the best athletic skills in Europe at the time – those prized by the military. Through them he told the story of a 19th-century soldier-messenger fighting off attackers with his sword and pistol as he rides an unfamiliar horse, swims through a river and then runs from behind enemy lines to the battlefield.
De Coubertin, whose heart is buried near the site of the Ancient Games in Olympia, saw it as a worthy successor to the throwing, running, jumping and wrestling of swarthy naked Greek athletes competing for the crown of most complete athlete.
The reception was initially enthusiastic. US General George S Patton – who reportedly took opium before he ran – competed in the first edition in 1912 as a young Lieutenant. But in the years since, modern pentathlon has become a quirky minority event in permanent danger of exclusion.
This lack of popularity has troubled World Pentathlon for some time, and its leaders are constantly altering the format. The five-day sport was shoehorned into one, and the Paris Olympics will stage a controversial 90-minute version. The athletics-only decathlon and heptathlon are run over two days.
Often decisions were taken without consulting the athletes or enough notice. Riding specialists such as former Olympic bronze medallist Kate Allenby have long pushed back against increasing the time pressure. She described an event in Bulgaria where the athletes were told they must showjump as a relay team, with three people sharing the same horse. “It was ridiculous. It was not safe, but they wouldn’t budge so I said ‘okay I’ll do it but two of us will be on hobby horses’. I went to a toy shop and turned up with two hobby horses. I’ve never seen such a quick U-turn.”
In Tokyo they staged the entire event in the stadium, which included a raised, temporary swimming pool. In one of the most successful developments, pistol target shooting was combined with running to create the “laser run”. Its start is now staggered according to points, so the first athlete to cross the line is the winner of the whole event – making it more exciting. Still, modern pentathlon remained in relative obscurity.
The UIPM clearly put this down to a lack of accessibility, expense and problems with the format. Pentathletes put it down to bad governance and a lack of imagination. Publicity has been desultory, commentating amateur, and, they say, there has been no effort to properly explain why modern pentathlon should be at the heart of the Olympics.
“We are totally failing to tell the story when we have a brilliant story to tell,” a former pentathlete who has worked as an official at the Olympics told me with frustration. Here are five exciting, specifically non-complementary sports testing everything that makes a complete sportsperson, he said, yet nowhere this properly articulated or explained.
“There’s the raw speed and strength – that’s the 200 metre swimming. Then for skill, control and mind games you have the shoot. Coming face to face with an opponent in a contest that’s all about reaction and agility – that’s the fence,” he explained. “Then we test the value of experience and courage – that’s the ride. How can you apply your experience in an unknown situation, calmly and with courage, and connect with another being? And where are you on endurance and determination? After everything else, how do you step up for the two-mile run? These are arguably the greatest all-round sportsmen and women in the world.”
The more difficult a sport is to follow, the more important marketing becomes, yet pentathlon has seen little of the attention devoted to professionalising its narrative as Winter Biathlon (shooting and skiing) has done to secure a big jump in popularity.
For the UIPM, and to a certain extent the IOC, the problem of visibility seems to have coalesced around an obsession with riding. Yet experienced athletes argue that riding only became a problem because the UIPM made it so, by downgrading it over the years and ignoring safety and reputational warnings.
The repercussions are calamitous in terms of animal welfare and the good of the sport.
“UIPM removed riding from the semifinals (of big events) in 1994 – and that was the moment when they messaged TO the competitors that riding is less important than the rest,” Allenby told me. “You can basically get to the Olympic finals as a tetrathlete.”
This meant the finalists were not always the best pentathletes. The scoring system doesn’t help. Riding has a maximum possible number of points, while in swimming or running, the faster you go, the better your score. Some competitors think it’s a risk worth taking to just focus on the other elements and hope a good horse in the final will carry them through. But luck can run out with unpredictable animals. The footage of several riders in Tokyo struggling, falling off, or bouncing around unimpressively was beyond embarrassing.
Uniquely in equestrian sports, riders only have 20 minutes to get used to a strange horse. Ironically, for a sport that officially allocates so little time to this discipline, you need to be especially accomplished to quickly gel with a new horse and coax it round a course of 1.2 metre jumps.
Schleu normally rides well, but her horse, Saint Boy – which had been tested on the course out of competition – was stressed after a bad early round with a lower-ranked athlete and she reacted badly. Many believe he should have been replaced.
Nobody is arguing against change. “Losing riding would remove the most special event from the sport,” Danish federation president Benny Elmann-Larsen told me. “But in Tokyo it was unnecessarily poor – if we want to ride, we have to ride in a qualified manner.”
For years, riding supporters have cried out for reform, and made suggestions for improvement. These include a compulsory international license and international riding camps, a riding competency test into the competition, changing the show jumping course with lower jumps but a more complicated course to test the rider, and ensuring that you cannot get to a big final without competing on horseback several times. Horses sensitive to strange riders should never be selected, however well they normally jump. Disqualification could be easier, so stressed horses aren’t forced to carry on.
One option is to collaborate with equestrian federations, including the international FEI, even though there is little love lost, with straight horse sportspeople seeing pentathlon riding as a sort of inferior cousin. After Tokyo, the German dressage rider Isabell Werth, a multiple Olympic gold medallist, told a sports newspaper: “Pentathlon has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with horse riding. The horses are just modes of transport – they might as well have been bicycles or roller skates.”
But the incentive to help is there – bad pentathlon riding could reflect on the others. If riding goes from pentathlon with enough fanfare, others could be next in the firing line from animal rights campaigners who want all horse sports removed.
Yet the whole post-Tokyo process has been faintly farcical, with UIPM working group meetings producing some alarming alternatives, including pillow-fighting – a little-known mixed martial art-style event held in a ring where competitors hit each other with reinforced “pillows”.
Other suggestions included rowing machines – which test athlete strength and stamina but make for an excruciatingly boring audience experience– surfing, wrestling, sport climbing and cycling. But only obstacle racing is going to be trialled.
The bulk of athletes feel shut out and poorly represented. When Choong described a meeting with the UIPM, it was clear that this was much more than chaotic governance: “You had to sign up, we were all muted. You had 4-5 seconds to ask a question and no chance to respond to the answer. There was no consultation, no discussion,” he said. “Out of 16 board members they had 13 white men over 60 enjoying the sound of their own voices and ignoring the younger athletes. It wasn’t a conversation. It was very much a master-servant dialogue. It’s not good enough.”
Afterwards, the decision to drop riding – still vehemently opposed by most current athletes – was confirmed at a congress with help from several of what athletes believe are tame “ghost” federations without any competing athletes – such as Burundi.
What’s happening in modern pentathlon is in a way emblematic of the struggle against a growing power imbalance across sport between executives who act with impunity and athletes with little say over their day jobs.
At the Beijing Winter Olympics, where free speech was curtailed, athletes were driven to tears by the conditions, food and apparently arbitrary decisions over Covid quarantine and disqualifications. After a day when some top ski jumpers were controversially disqualified over ski suits that were previously allowed, Germany’s Katharina Althaus exploded: “This is how you destroy nations, development and the entire sport.”
That Beijing was the first Winter Olympics to rely almost entirely on fake snow is not just about climate change but a symbol of the choices made to expand reach and tap into new markets – Beijing promised millions of new participants and big spending. The World Cup final in Qatar – a country so hot it needs to air condition its exploitatively-built stadiums and move the entire event to winter – shows FIFA on a similar quest to grow at all costs
Schormann is joined on the UIPM board by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, son of the powerful former IOC president who shares his name. Samaranch Sr transformed the Olympic Games from a financially struggling amateur show into a profitable powerhouse, although detractors say this came with compromising the so-called Olympic spirit and turning a blind eye to bribery and corruption. There’s no evidence of the latter here, but the tone-deaf bid to expand pentathlon’s fiefdom seems to be from the same playbook.
The athletes say they have started to feel bit-part players in their own sport. So Pentathlon United – slogan “The ultimate Olympic sport. Failed by its leaders” – was formed late last year, joining a growing band of advocacy groups such as Global Athlete and World Player United that are dedicated to protecting athletes’ rights and preventing them becoming pawns in political and economic chess games.
But advocacy only goes so far. Elmann-Larsen says he is fighting so “the athletes be given one more chance to make riding right”. The one way to win the argument and regain their LA spot would be to ensure an improved and engaging showjumping session at the 2024 Paris Olympics. But in the current climate how could such a thing even be planned?
Lesun – a rare Russian athlete to speak out against the Ukraine invasion – was certain of the one change he thinks is needed to save his sport.
“We have been walking on the razor’s edge for a long time: will they throw us out or not? Over the years, (Schormann) “developed” pentathlon so much that he brought the sport to a deep crisis, and I strongly doubt that he will be able to get out of it,” he told a Russian news outlet before the war. “If he has been unable to come to an agreement with the IOC for 28 years, perhaps he should be replaced?”
On hearing Lesun, athletes across the globe may well be looking at their own long-standing tone-deaf leaders and saying: “Amen to that.”