It is a sport conceived originally by the founder of the modern Olympics to help cavalry riders to develop the skills needed to survive behind enemy lines. But after 109 years, modern pentathlon’s governing body has voted secretly to remove horse riding and replace it with cycling, the Guardian can reveal.
Multiple sources have said the decision was taken by the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne’s executive board in recent days, and was hastened by the distressing scenes at the Tokyo Olympics when a horse was punched by a German coach after it refused to jump a fence.
Those pictures made global headlines and the UIPM is understood to have acted in order to preserve its status in the Olympics in the lead-up to the Paris 2024 Games.
While the decision has not yet been announced officially, it is already facing a backlash from some countries who believe that losing the horse-riding element fundamentally changes the sport. Modern pentathlon has been a core Olympic event since 1912 when it was invented by Pierre de Coubertin – and while it has since moved from a five-day event to a solitary day it has always tested athletes in fencing, swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross-country running.
The UIPM refused to deny the story when confronted by the Guardian, with a spokesperson saying: “I am not able to give you any information right now.”
However, the organisation later released a statement: “As part of UIPM’s commitment to maintaining a strong, dynamic profile for modern pentathlon, a series of strategic meetings are being held. These meetings will include an upcoming call with national federations later this week. The outcome of these meetings will be detailed in a press release to be published on 4 November.”
The former British modern pentathlete Kate Allenby, who won a bronze for Team GB at the Sydney Olympics, told the Guardian any move to replace riding would be a “disaster” for the sport. “This needs talking about because it’s not modern pentathlon if it hasn’t got riding in it,” she said.
However another British Olympian Greg Whyte, who also won a world silver medal in 1994, said he could understand the change. “I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “Back in the day, the fencing part alone used to take 14 hours, while in Paris the whole event will last just 90 minutes. All sports evolve, and no sport is immune from change in the modern TV era.”
The UIPM is understood to have acted after the sport was heavily criticised in Tokyo. The German competitor Annika Schleu, who had been in the gold-medal position before the showjumping, was seen in tears after her ride, Saint Boy, refused to jump over the obstacles.
The German coach Kim Raisner, who was seen punching Saint Boy, was sent home from Tokyo and the UIPM promised to conduct a full review as well as disciplining Raisner.
Britain won the men’s and women’s modern pentathlon events at the Tokyo 2020 Games courtesy of Joe Choong and Kate French.