Modern pentathlon soon finds out if swapping horses for obstacles enough for invite to 2028 LA Games


The athletes in modern pentathlon know for certain horses won’t be part of their event at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

They just hope they get invited.

Although the century-old Olympic sport is on the docket for the Paris Games next summer — with horses — it’s not currently part of the LA Games program. That could soon change as the International Olympic Committee’s executive board meets this week to decide whether modern pentathlon, boxing and weightlifting will gain inclusion. The three were tasked with demonstrating they’ve made changes to the governance or organizational culture.

That meant a dramatic makeover for modern pentathlon after issues that arose during the show-jumping portion at the Tokyo Games in 2021. The sport swapped equestrian for obstacles (think: “American Ninja Warrior”) as the fifth discipline to join swimming, laser shooting, running and fencing.

To some, it was a radical, sport-altering move that ushers in a new sort of athlete, while saying farewell to horses — an integral part of the event’s history.

To others, a completely necessary action because being placed on the Olympic sideline would’ve meant a significant financial blow. The Olympic revenue distribution to the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), the sport’s governing body, has been a combined $26 million from the Tokyo and the 2016 Rio Games.

Unlike, say, basketball, the Olympics are everything for modern pentathlon.

“It’s our Everest,” said Jamie Cooke, a two-time Olympian who’s now coaching the Swiss team. “It’s how we showcase our event to the world.”

The sports landscape is crowded these days, and the Olympics are trending toward a younger audience. LA28 recently delivered a proposal to put flag football on the program when the Summer Games return to the United States for the first time in 32 years. Also on the LA proposal were baseball and softball, lacrosse, squash, and cricket.

Not picked up by LA28 were breakdancing — which makes its debut in Paris — motorsports, kickboxing and karate.

“Yes, there is competition with other sports. But we hope that we will be confirmed in the program after the change we’ve made,” Joel Bouzou, the vice president of UIPM, said in an interview with The Associated Press in May.

Modern pentathlon has been part of the Olympics since the 1912 Stockholm Games. Over the years, the sport invented by IOC founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin has gone through assorted transformations. For instance, pistol shooting was replaced by laser guns before the 2012 London Games.

This, though, tested the fabric of the sport, as the equestrian component came under fire during the Tokyo Olympics. TV footage showed German coach Kim Raisner leaning over a fence to strike the horse Saint Boy, which refused to jump the fences in the show-jumping round. That cost German athlete Annika Schleu a chance of winning the gold medal.

Athletes in modern pentathlon are expected to ride horses they haven’t met before. Bonding with them quickly is part of the challenge.

After Tokyo, the sport was under pressure to replace the equestrian part — or risk being dropped from LA28. An athlete focus group came up with suggestions.

The choice was obstacles, where athletes navigate a course filled with ring swings, rope mazes and climbing walls. It drew on the popularity of the reality TV show “American Ninja Warrior” and obstacle-course events such as the “ Spartan Race.”

But not all are sold on obstacles being a long-term solution. Pentathlon United is an athlete-driven movement created to build a new vision for pentathlon. One that believes the decision to “remove the equestrian discipline was unfounded, unnecessary and reckless.”

“The sport getting back in, that’s brilliant. Athletes will have an Olympic experience. That’s wonderful. I wouldn’t want to take that away from anybody,” said Kate Allenby, a two-time Olympian for Britain and a representative of Pentathlon United. “But the question is this: Is the sport (still) pentathlon if it’s got obstacle racing in it? Because it’s an entirely different athlete.”

Allenby compared it to track and field changing one of the 10 events that make up the decathlon. Say, switching out the pole vault for a 200-meter swim.

“Is that still the decathlon?” she pondered.

“When do you stop calling it pentathlon?” Allenby added. “Where’s your line?”

This remains a complicated time as athletes train for Paris, where horses are part of the program, and have a eye down the road with obstacles. This has essentially turned into training for six events.

“It’s challenging because we already have so many hours of training,” said modern pentathlete Sophie Hernandez of Guatemala, who is focusing on Paris and hoping for LA28 (pending inclusion). “But we were already training in the gym and doing strength exercises. We were already putting in the time. We now just have to manage it differently and start making exercises that will prepare us for the obstacles.”

A public survey conducted by YouGov, an international online research group, found that 45% of Generation Z (born in 2000 or later) polled in the U.S. were more likely to tune into the Olympics on TV if a Ninja-style obstacle race was included. UIPM surveyed 159 athletes at events, with the research showing 95.6% were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with obstacles.

The addition of obstacles may reduce cost barriers, too, given the price of training with horses.

Ahmed Elgendy, the Tokyo Olympics silver medalist, said that he and about a dozen Egyptian modern pentathletes share one horse (named “Charlie”). It’s not the most ideal situation with the Paris Games less than a year away.

“The obstacles just are more affordable,” Elgendy explained, “and we can build it in any place.”

Hernandez said she sometimes trains for obstacles at a kids’ playground.

“It’s something that’s going to happen,” she said of obstacles, “so we have to prepare for it.”

In Paris, the modern pentathlon competition will bid an Olympic farewell to the horses. The sport, though, hopes it’s done enough to proceed.

“That chapter will close,” Cooke said. “But the pen will keep on writing. We will have new champions and we will have new athletes forging their new paths and forging our new sport.”


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