- Modern pentathlon is on the brink of losing its Olympic place.
- To save itself, the sport is undergoing the most drastic change in its history.
- The change has sparked a civil war in the sport, with one side thinking of the present and one thinking of the future.
Once considered the apex of the ancient Olympic Games, the pentathlon — consisting of running, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling — was designed to test the warrior skills of soldiers; its winner would be dubbed "Victor Ludo rum," or "the winner of the games."
Marveling at the athleticism of those competitors, Aristotle once declared: "The athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful."
So when the event was re-introduced into the modern Olympics in 1912 — this time as modern pentathlon and consisting of fencing, swimming, shooting, running, and equestrian show jumping — it held a similar standing.
"The pentathletes are the perfect athletes, because in their bodies are both strength and speed," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the sport's inventor and founder of the modern Games. "The individual who truly deserves that name 'Olympian' is the competitor in the modern pentathlon."
And yet now, 110 years later, the sport couldn't be further from its origins. It's on the brink of losing its place in the Olympics altogether.
Trouble in Tokyo
Modern pentathlon's rapid fall from grace began at last year's Tokyo Olympics when Kim Raisner, a German coach, punched a horse that was refusing to jump during the equestrian portion of the event.
The incident prompted backlash from animal rights activists and fans across the globe, and reports of historic animal welfare neglect within the sport soon emerged.
By early November, leaked documents sent from the International Olympic Committee to modern pentathlon's governing body, Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, had revealed that the sport would be cut from the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic program if it did not drop show jumping as one of its five disciplines.
Though the IOC has since denied giving UIPM an ultimatum, a source told Insider that the IOC told UIPM it would look "unfavorably" on an Olympic proposal featuring show jumping.
UIPM took heed, and later that month and announced that show jumping would be officially removed from the sport following the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Still, when LA28 announced its preliminary list of sports to be included at the 2028 Games in December, modern pentathlon was conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing were all included in a program that the IOC said "focuses on youth."
The IOC told UIPM that in order to save its Olympic place for LA, a new fifth discipline must be decided and included in its proposal — due by the end of 2022.
"Modern Pentathlon must finalize its proposal for the replacement of horse riding and demonstrate a significant reduction in cost and complexity and show improvements in safety, accessibility, universality, and appeal for youth," IOC President Thomas Bach said.
By May of this year, UIPM announced that it had found show jumping's replacement: obstacle course racing.
A pentathlete revolt
Immediately after the decision to cut show jumping was made, more than 600 people within the sport signed a motion of no confidence against UIPM's leadership.
Following the announcement that obstacle course racing would be tested as show jumping's replacement, the backlash only intensified.
On the same day that UIPM announced the proposed new fifth discipline, a group of elite modern pentathletes, known collectively as Pentathlon United, sent a signed letter to the IOC calling for an independent investigation into the "heavy-handed and unconstitutional manner in which the UIPM acted to remove the equestrian discipline."
No investigation transpired, but the group and its members have since continued to rally for show jumping to remain in the sport and to voice their displeasure at its proposed replacement.
Some, including the reigning men's Olympic champion Joseph Choong, cite the sport's history as the reason for their anger.
"I don't know how anything other than the original five sports can fit into the DNA of modern pentathlon," Choong told Insider. "We're not just a pick-and-mix sport where you just choose the five most convenient sports and chuck them all together. We are a legitimate Olympic sport, and we've got a very proud history. I think it's quite insulting to throw that out so readily."
Others, such as Australia's Marina Carrier, who finished third in the women's show jumping section in Tokyo, are simply disappointed that a part of the sport they enjoy so much is on the verge of vanishing.
"Riding is a big passion of mine," Carrier told Insider. "I have learned so much just as a person, let alone an athlete, from working with horses.
"So from a personal perspective, I am very much against the change. I think it's a tragedy to rob future pentathletes of that opportunity to work with such amazing animals."
But more than anything, a large proportion of Pentathlon United's members — including Choong and Carrier — are angry over the process that led to this point. They lament that they had no say in the future direction of their own sport.
The decision to choose obstacle course racing as modern pentathlon's fifth discipline was made by a "working group" of 21 people.
Four of those members were Olympic pentathletes, including Great Britain's James Cooke, the men's 2018 World and 2019 European champion. Four were were "external marketing and media experts," including the former IOC marketing director Michael Payne and the former chairman of Fox Sports, David Hill. The remainder of the group was made up mostly of UIPM officials, including its president, Klaus Schormann.
"The entire process has shocked me the way that athletes matter so little in decision-making processes in sport," Choong said. "It's clear that a huge majority of active athletes don't want these changes, and yet it's been forced through anyway."
Pentathlon United published a survey in July that showed 92% of current pentathletes polled said they want to keep show jumping in the sport.
Respondents could choose one of following: obstacle racing; ninja-style racing; equestrian, as it is now; equestrian, with reformed rules as proposed by the group; no opinion; or other. A total of 213 people from 40 nations responded, 66% of whom reported being current pentathletes.
Choong, who also alleges that the decision to replace show jumping with obstacle course racing was made months ago behind closed doors, said the nature of the process has been so personally devastating that he will quit the sport if the change occurs.
"Only a complete revamp of the UIPM governance and board members would make me consider staying," he said. "I have no desire to compete under a organization as rotten as this one."
American pentathletes Heidi Hendrick and Avery Niemann told Insider that, like Choong, they are also angry at how they have not been involved in the decision-making process and that they too will quit the sport if show jumping is permanently removed.
"Modern pentathlon is defined as swimming, running, fencing, equestrian, and shooting in its statutes," Hendricksaid. "So just to say, 'well, now it's gone and you have no say over this', is really upsetting."
Niemann said: "From the initial press announcement, [UIPM] said athletes would be the center voice of this, but that's very clearly not been the case.
"If it had been a fair process, if it had been done correctly, then we'd probably be more willing to sit down and just take it, but that's not been the case."
Cooke, one of the four Olympic pentathletes in the fifth-discipline working group, disagrees with the claims from current pentathletes that they were left out of the process.
He told Insider that while UIPM's initial decision to cut show jumping took almost everybody in the sport by surprise — himself included — when it came to finding a replacement discipline, UIPM and its fifth-discipline working group reached out to all of the sport's committees and every national federation, asking for their input.
"Everyone has had an opportunity to put forward their proposals," he said. "Every national federation, I think there's 131 of them, were allowed to speak among each other and then put forward their proposals.
"The technical committee, which is made up of referees, judges, were also allowed to put forward their suggestions, as were the coaching committee, and the athlete committee.
"We [the fifth-discipline working group] spoke to the athlete representatives from individual nations and asked them to speak to their athletes and then we put together an athlete focus group, which was a mix of demographics.
"We had members that had strong opinions for riding in that focus group, and we also had athletes that had strong opinions against it.
"I think in terms of that process we did a really, really good job."
The IOC did not respond to Insider's request for an interview, but IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell addressed the issue of athlete involvement in UIPM's decision to cut show jumping.
McConnell said that when the IOC advised the UIPM to cut show jumping, it made clear that the sport's athletes must be involved in the process of selecting a replacement discipline.
"I think we should consider that there's two aspects to this, also: There's the elected athlete commission voice and there's other athletes, which may or may not have the same opinion, which also have a voice," McConnell said at a news conference in September.
"So, again, we're looking forward to the UIPM reflecting that athlete voice — both in their review of that fifth discipline, finalizing the recommendation of that discipline, and then in the proposals they put forth to us — and we'll take that athlete view in that consideration."
A necessary change?
Pentathlon United's mission is clear — it wants to keep show jumping in modern pentathlon and reform the discipline rather than replace it.
The group also wants a change of leadership. Schormann has been UIPM president for nearly three decades, winning the last election in November unopposed.
But while Pentathlon United may represent a large number of current elite pentathletes, it is by no means the voice of everybody involved with the sport.
A number of current or former elite pentathletes are happy for the change to come and believe it will help preserve the sport's Olympic future.
One of those is Cooke, who is now the head coach of the Greek modern pentathlon national team.
"We are an Olympic sport that is on the edge," he told Insider. "We're very, very low down, if not bottom, in a lot of ratings like ticket sales, viewership, and participation, and that is what has caused this situation. We have to make a decision, and we have to change."
According to a report from Yahoo, modern pentathlon "consistently ranks bottom for television audiences and internal measurements for social engagement" at the Olympics.
According to Jörg Krieger's 2022 book "Athletes Pressing Charges: Fighting for the Future of Modern Pentathlon", the sport also struggles significantly in terms of global participation.
"As a result of the sport's complex format, modern pentathlon has suffered from a lack of participation in the sport, as well as limited public interest," wrote Krieger, an assistant professor in sport and social science at Aarhus University.
"With regards to general participation in the sport, the cost of training for five separate sports — not to mention the equipment needed to train for a sport like fencing or horse-riding — limits the pool of potential athletes who are able to compete."
According to a study by Quartz, with equestrian as part of modern pentathlon, the cost of entry-level equipment and facilities for each athlete is around $13,580 — making it the most expensive of any Olympic sport. Remove the equipment and facilities needed for equestrian, and the cost goes down to $3,170.
Cooke added: "Looking at the numbers, obstacle course racing was selected because it is more accessible [than show jumping].
"We want to be able to showcase a fast, dynamic sport that is easily accessible and more cost-effective so that we can transform the participation numbers of modern pentathlon."
UIPM officials, many of whom are former modern pentathletes themselves, are also in favor of the change.
Like Cooke, they believe obstacle course racing can help improve participation in modern pentathlon across the globe and its viewership figures.
"The Olympic movement is changing," Alexandre França, UIPM's operations director and the former head coach of Brazil's national modern pentathlon team, told Insider.
"It's a huge challenge, for everyone who is involved, but we need to look to the future.
"We have a goal to be in the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, we needed to replace riding, and among the options we had, I'm sure this was the best."
He added: "UIPM are respecting the IOC's criteria for the selection and what they are expecting to see in the change of the sport."
Vice President Bouzou, a four-time Olympic pentathlete for France, said: "If we want to remain an Olympic sport, we have to embrace all the continents or countries and this is a solution that lets us do that."
"Obstacle course racing is accessible, it's not expensive, we can organize it everywhere," he added. "Riding is very expensive. Some people say it's not true, but it is true. That's the reality. How do you do that in Africa? Or in some countries in Asia? This you can do everywhere."
The voice of youth
Ever since UIPM's initial decision to cut show jumping from modern pentathlon was made, the IOC has continually used the word "youth".
The organization said its LA 2028 Olympic program will focus "on youth." IOC President Thomas Bach told UIPM that modern pentathlon's new fifth discipline must "appeal for youth."
The term, however, has been met with differing responses from the opposing camps at the heart of modern pentathlon's ongoing civil war.
One side, UIPM, has embraced it.
UIPM has to date thrown three test events for obstacle course racing, the latest of which was held in Italy at the same time as the U-17 and U-19 Modern Pentathlon World Championships, where Insider was present. Young athletes from all across the world — including from Egypt, Brazil, France, England, China, and Ukraine — were able to try the course with instruction from obstacle racing experts, while local children were also invited to test the course.
Many of those who had a go thoroughly enjoyed it.
"I think it's really good," a young athlete from Hungary told Insider. Another from England said: "I'd never done anything like it before. I think it's a good thing for the future of the sport."
UIPM also shared feedback from dozens of young athletes who were at the test event, most of which was overwhelmingly positive.
Coaches of the young athletes were impressed with the test event, too.
"I think it's interesting for spectators, for me," a coach from Lithuania told Insider at the event in Italy. "I think [obstacle course racing] could give modern pentathlon more chance to be in the Olympics and maybe the popularity of our sport can increase."
Iain Aberdeen, one of England's U-19 coaches, told Insider: "The athletes here have been really, really enjoying it. It's fun, it's challenging. Some are really strong at it and some find it a bit difficult, but the more they do it the more they will pick it up, the same as any sport.
"The change is quite drastic, but as with anything, as long as we've got the lead time, we can practice. We can get the techniques right, and we can introduce it to the younger age groups for the next generation to come through."
Unlike UIPM, Pentathlon United has not made youth the focal point of its mission to keep show jumping in modern pentathlon.
In August, the group published a document that proposed reforming the equestrian discipline rather than replacing it. These changes included: More horses at competitions; regulated standards of animal welfare and punishments for non-compliance; and global minimum riding standards.
The document made little-to-no reference as to how any of the proposed changes would benefit younger athletes and improve the sport's accessibility, instead focusing on how it would benefit current competitors, the overall quality of the show jumping discipline, and, rightly so, the animals themselves.
For example, the group said in the document: "As things stand, athletes with little riding experience have the possibility to end up in a World Cup final, or even at the Olympic Games. Obviously this is inappropriate and unwanted and at worst hazardous for horse and rider."
Some members of Pentathlon United have, speaking to Insider, even dismissed the idea that youth athletes' opinions matter on the current issues within the sport.
"They aren't full pentathletes," Niemann said when asked about the feedback given by young athletes about the test event in Italy.
"I'd just like to know how they're gonna run sub-six minute miles, shoot and fence at an elite level in six years. It won't happen. Unless we're going to become only ninja, those kids will not be Olympians."
Drastically changing a sport to which one has committed so much of one's life, and money, isn't a change many would roll over and accept.
But the issue lies in that the group's ideas don't align with those of the IOC, which will ultimately make the call about modern pentathlon's inclusion in LA.
UIPM's ideas, on the other hand, do.
"We are making a big change linked to the clear message of IOC: 'Change, or you will be changed,'" UIPM president Schormann told Insider.
"I completely understand athletes who say, 'This is my sport.' But we have to be fair to the next generation. It is like if you are a parent, you have a great career and you want the grassroots in the place for your children, so that they can also have a great career and have their dream fulfilled.
"That's what we are doing now. There are voices that want to keep the sport as it is. But if we do that, then [we're] out [of the Olympics].
"If you go to the doctor and the doctor says, 'Here is a tablet, take it and you will stay another 10 years alive.' If you denied then you die. It's your decision. Do you want to die or do you want to ensure there is still a chance for future generations?
"We are focusing absolutely on future generations. In business, in culture, in everything — our life is in the hands of the youth."
Modern pentathlon may never again be the apex of the Olympic Games, but changing with the times could just save its place at the world's biggest sporting event.