The modern pentathlon might need, for want of a better word, modernizing

A competitor in the women's modern pentathlon event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
A competitor in the women’s modern pentathlon event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. © IOC/Filip Komorous

An Olympic Games like no other has unfolded in Tokyo, and it has certainly provided an enjoyable interlude in a world upended by Covid-19.

It was a modern Olympics in the truest sense. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), once considered a somewhat traditional and staid body, threw caution to the wind and instituted some big changes ahead of Tokyo, urging some sports to re-examine their formats.

The aims included broader participation and, in some cases, faster-paced programs better suited to television. In the end, in stadiums largely devoid of spectators, it became the Television Games.

It pushed ahead with changes aimed at increasing flexibility, boosting female participation and bolstering youth and urban appeal.

Horse sport fans will recall the consternation over changes to the Olympic equestrian events, which have been well traversed in these columns in recent years. Crucially, team contests were cut to three riders, dispensing with the drop score.

This enabled more countries to be represented, but it also ramped up the pressure on all three squad members in each team to perform.

FEI secretary-general Ingmar De Vos acknowledged in 2017: “It wasn’t easy for our community to make such drastic changes to our Olympic formats, but the national federations knew the importance of this decision and ultimately supported the proposed changes.”

In the afterglow of the closing ceremony, it is still too early to make a final judgment on the changes — and, at the end of the day, the only judgment that will really count is that of the IOC. No doubt, IOC members will receive all the data they need on media and social media engagement and will move forward from there.

Some of the changes were an undoubted success. Skateboarding and sport climbing have surely cemented a place at the Games. They were great to watch and were tailored well to a television audience. The 3×3 basketball was fast-paced and ideally suited to television, while the mixed triathlon relay was a great television spectacle.

The arrival of high definition television has been a boon for some sports. White water kayaking — certainly a minority sport — was truly eye-catching in close-up slow-motion replays. Many Olympic sports benefited from the explosion in the number of big-screen televisions that consumers have at home.

But I want to deal with the modern pentathlon, in particular the women’s contest which erupted in controversy over what I am going to politely term as the failure of some horse-and-rider combinations to gel.

It is a recipe for distress, frustration, and, in an era where horse welfare is absolutely paramount, bound to attract much scrutiny.

» Update: Tokyo 2020 pentathlon: Review of horse jumping phase under way

I am all for sporting traditions. Indeed, much of the push-back against the reforms seen in the Olympic equestrian events centered around concerns that the disciplines’ traditions were being tampered with.

In the modern pentathlon, riders have only 20 minutes to become acquainted with a showjumping horse before being required to jump a course.

I have no doubt that the horses are carefully selected to be suitable for this event, and I also have no doubt that the standard of the rider will be an important influence on the outcome.

But anyone with even a passing knowledge of horses will understand that this is as much a test of the horse as it is of the rider. And the modern pentathlon is supposed to be a test of the multi-discipline skills of the competitors, not the horse.

There is much heat in the debate right now, so the whole issue needs to be examined over the coming months with cooler heads.

The women’s pentathlon showjumping had all the appearances of a contest between horse and rider, instead of between competitors. And that was a terrible look for the sport — for all horse sport, actually.

Some would argue that the men’s showjumping section of the modern pentathlon passed without a hitch, but I’m not sure that’s really the point.

Perhaps, the modern pentathlon needs to experience the winds of change, too, and look to substitute some other skills test. I’m sure plenty of options could be unearthed.

As for the other equestrian events, the format changes didn’t produce any big upsets in terms of upending the world order. It certainly got more competitors in the mix, and I’ll be interested to see the final figures on audience engagement.

I do worry about the sad loss of a Swiss eventing horse, Jet Set, who suffered a leg injury during the cross-country that resulted in his euthanasia. I’m not sure what the IOC will think about the loss of a horse on the Olympic stage.

4 thoughts on “The modern pentathlon might need, for want of a better word, modernizing

  • August 9, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Could it be that those pentatletes who had trouble with their horses simply don’t ride well enough? Is there a case to be made for demanding a higher baseline level of equestrian skill for pentathlon competitors?

    • August 10, 2021 at 10:31 pm

      I compete internationally in modern pentathlon – not good enough for olympics though.

      Riding is my best event and largely this is because I don’t own a horse but I ride arounbd 30 different horses a year – some of them barely broken.

      One event I was in I drew the same horse as a german rider. They went first and the horse gave lots of problems, but I could tell it could jump. The organisers asked me I wanted a different horse ( not sure if they do that in the olympics but they should): i said no need, and sure enough the horse reared up on me and was nervous. But I knew to relax and release the reins to let it calm down. It had a clear run and gave me a 3rd place overall.

      The rider before me – was on paper much better. Owns a couple of horses, rides everyday, competes in showumping. BUT not used to strange horses.

  • August 10, 2021 at 8:20 am

    I was surprised at some of the bad riding. Sawing horses mouths, bad take off positions – too short and too long, how many rails were hit by horses legs, ridings clinging to horses necks during jumps. It was very painful to watch by anyone who has done show jumping. Horses were injured in both body and spirit by a set of ridiculous rules which gave both horse and rider 20 minutes to get acquainted. The rules hurt both horse and rider and we were lucky not to see more serious injury to either one.

    The rules need to change as follows, all riders get to bring their own horse OR all riders get 7 days to work with both the horse and owner to get to know their mounts.

    Pretty simple.

    • August 10, 2021 at 10:35 pm

      I totally disagree. I usually ride every year in international events from Switzerland to Egypt – and pay for my own costs. Many modern pentathletes do not have the means to pay for the transportation of horses to events around the world. It would ruin the sport.
      The whole idea is that the rider is to be tested on his ability to get on an unknown animal and master it quickly: not, as in showjumping, to show he has the means to but $100,000 plus horse It isn’t a sport that gives privilege to the rich.


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