The Tokyo Olympics horse punching saga sent modern pentathlon into chaos. Now the sport's stars are in open revolt.
- The Tokyo Olympic horse punching incident has sent
modern pentathloninto a state of crisis.
- Authorities are trying to ditch one of its 109-year-old disciplines, and athletes are in open revolt.
After almost a century as a relatively obscure sport that most people watch — at most — once every four years, modern pentathlon was thrown into the spotlight at this summer's Tokyo Olympics after a series of incidents marred the five-discipline competition.
First German rider Annika Schleu went viral after breaking down in tears when her horse, Saint Boy, refused to jump during the show jumping portion of the event. Then Schleu's coach Kim Raisner was thrown out of the games for punching Saint Boy in frustration, raising questions about animal welfare in modern pentathlon.
Since that day, August 6, the sport has descended into chaos.
Its governing body, the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), has opted to remove show jumping as one of the sport's five disciplines in attempt to maintain its Olympic status.
Some of its finest athletes — including the current Olympic champion — have threatened to quit, outraged by the decision, while a replacement discipline, at first thought to be cycling, has yet to be announced.
But drama in Tokyo was just the tip of the iceberg in a sport which has a long history of neglecting animal welfare and is governed by an organization that refuses to change and modernize, three of the sport's biggest names have told Insider.
"The UIPM have continually damaged the sport over the past 20 to 25 years," retired three-time world champion Samantha Murray told Insider.
"They just like to make their own rules without consulting athletes," Joseph Choong, who won gold in the men's event in Tokyo for Great Britain, added.
"They just don't seem to care about the sport at all."
Modern pentathlon's history is littered with problems
Issues with the horses in modern pentathlon date all the way back to the sport's first appearance at the Olympic Games.
According to The Guardian, in 1912, Pierre de Coubertin, the sport's founder, who is also the founder of a International Olympic Committee, was "upset" because the Swedish team complained that every competitor did not have to bring their own horse.
De Coubertin insisted that doing so was logistically too difficult, so athletes would instead draw them from a pool of horses provided by the hosts.
That rule has remained ever since, and has caused problems throughout the sport's history, for two reasons.
Firstly, in official competitions, only 18 horses are provided for 36 athletes. This means each horses must jump twice, which not only places an undue amount of stress on each animal, but also puts the athletes who ride each horse second at a disadvantage.
This was true of Annika Schleu's horse, Saint Boy, in Tokyo.
It had already been ridden by another rider and had refused to jump. After Schleu was still allowed to ride it and it refused to jump again, the German's coach, Kim Raisner, struck the horse in frustration.
"Why is it only 18 horses are provided at a competition where there are 36 athletes?" Murray asked in an interview with Insider earlier in November.
"Often you cross your fingers and hope that the person in that first round rides without any damage, otherwise, you're then managing that going into your round. Why can't they just provide 36 horses so everyone has their own?
"Everyone has their own swimming lane, everyone has their own pistol, everyone has their own épées [fencing swords]. Why are they all sharing horses? It doesn't make sense."
The second issue with the current system of allocating horses is that the task of providing horses for elite competitions is given to the hosts of the events. This means that the quality of the animals provided can vary drastically depending on where in the world athletes are competing.
"The rules need to be changed. It seems that the host countries are left to their own devices when it comes to horses with no governance from the UIPM," Katy Livingston, a British pentathlete, who is a former world and European champion, told Insider.
"There is a huge difference in quality and care of horses from one country to the next with no penalties that I know of for countries which produce below par horses."
Sometimes, this can have disastrous consequences, such as at a World Cup event in Acapulco, Mexico in 2014, where Murray said the horses provided were "limping" and had "open wounds."
"The horses they had sourced were local carting horses," she said.
"They had open wounds, they were limping. The course was very low, but none of the horses could get around it. They had never been schooled in show jumping.
That event was cancelled when athletes boycotted it over horse welfare concerns, though the UIPM never formally acknowledged that as the reason, saying instead it was down to extreme heat at the venue.
The UIPM did not respond to Insider's request for comment on Murray's claims about the events in Acapulco.
The rules of the pentathlon are a mess
That's according to Murray, Choong, and Livingston, all of whom agree that differences in modern pentathlon courses around the world are unfair to both the horses and athletes.
UIPM competition rules state that courses must have "12 obstacles" with heights that "must be made in accordance with the standard of the horses."
In Olympic competition, fences must be four feet high, but in many competitions outside the games, the obstacles are only around three feet high.
This can cause problems for athletes who are not used to jumping such heights, or riding horses that are able to make those jumps, Murray said.
"What happens is, because a lot of pentathletes fast track their riding ability, they get into pentathlon and start competing all around the world. And generally the level of verticals is quite easy," she said.
"But then when they get to the Olympic Games, suddenly there's a huge height and they have to ride on the caliber of horse that can jump that fence.
"It's like driving around in a Mini Cooper and then suddenly jumping in a Jaguar and going around this course, which they just don't have the experience, skills, or know-how to successfully complete.
"That's why time and time again at the Olympics, we see modern pentathletes showing awful displays of horse riding."
Murray's assertions rang true in Tokyo.
In the women's competition, a number of riders clearly struggled to control their horses, with several bucked from their mounts or unseated at speed.
As Murray alluded to, rider quality is also not standardized across the globe.
In Great Britain, modern pentathletes have to go to an accredited riding coach and pass a test to be allowed to ride horses in international competitions. Other countries don't follow this process, nor is a global minimum riding standard enforced by the UIPM.
"You see people who've only qualified through, for example, the Pan American Games, which hasn't got the strength and depth as a European competition," said Choong.
"And then suddenly having to compete at the Olympics, it's not a feasible sort of expectation for the athlete."
Changes can be made, but they must come from the top
Fixing modern pentathlon's problems so that show-jumping can remain as one of the sport's five disciplines is, on the face of it, relatively simple, according to the athletes Insider talked to.
What it needs, they said, is the following:
- More horses at competitions;
- Fewer refusals before elimination;
- Regulated standards of animal welfare and punishments for non-compliance;
- Globally standardized courses;
- Global minimum riding standards.
Livingston suggests there should also be an "
However, enforcing such changes is difficult.
The UIPM has been the international governing body of modern pentathlon since 1948.
For the last 29 years, it has been headed by the same man, Dr. Klaus Schormann. Its executive board is made up of 20 members, including Schormann. Just four members are women, and more than 50% of the board is comprised of white men.
Choong says that communication between Schormann, the board, the rest of the UIPM and the sport's athletes is extremely poor.
"Communication is nonexistent," he said.
"They just think of an idea and stick with it and won't take any advice from anyone else. So it's impossible to get something that works for them and the athletes as a motion."
To illustrate the lack of confidence pentathletes have in the UIPM, Choong, Livingston, and Murray were among 665 pentathletes from around the world who signed a motion of no confidence in Schormann and the whole UIPM board earlier in November.
In the motion, the athletes said that in deciding to remove show jumping, the authority has "undermined" the entire history of modern pentathlon.
Speaking to Insider, Choong added: "Solutions have to be led from a top down implementation of UIPM funding, but that's just never been something that they have seemed interested in.
"Needing to up the quality of the horses and the quality of the courses has been something that has been presented to the UIPM for years and years now, but they've not really acted on it."
Murray and Livingston also questioned how Schormann has managed to stay as UIPM president for so long, with the former suggesting that election results are not made transparent to athletes.
"Klaus Schormann has remained president for over two decades and this has never been contested. How he's re-elected is not transparent," said Murray.
"A lot of the athlete community from the modern pentathlon world are currently asking, 'When is he going to leave? When is he going to stop being president of this sport?'"
In an email to Insider, the UIPM said it is "fully committed to allow a high level of transparency in its electoral process."
Regardless, many pentathletes remain unhappy with Schormann and the longevity of his tenure.
"One thing for sure is that no person should remain in power for as long as Klaus Schormann has managed to," Livingston said.
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