Removing horse riding from the modern pentathlon would be a shame

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There is a crazy side to covering about the Olympics, where every day brings unexpected stories that crop up and the best you can do is hope to hit most of the good ones.

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One of my biggest regrets of Tokyo 2020 came from this title, which I didn’t see until it was too late: “Coach Disqualified of Tokyo Olympics After Punching Horse”.

So many questions, the most obvious of which is: who hits a horse? I’m not an equine expert, but I’m pretty confident that hitting a horse would be very unlikely to cause the horse to behave in the desired way. They are nervous at the best of times.

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The shooter in question was a member of the German modern pentathlon team. She was sent home after assaulting an uncooperative horse. That would seem like the end, except that the Tokyo spinoff has the powers that exist in the modern pentathlon world – truly, one of the strangest Olympic traditions, which in its current form includes laser guns – rethinking their event . The horse part could disappear after the next Summer Olympics, Paris 2024. Athletes, as always seems to be the case with the Olympics, have so far not been part of the decision-making process. Everyone is annoyed, which is also a normal state between the Games themselves.

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First of all, a bit of history. In the ancient Olympics, the pentathlon was an event modeled after the characteristics required to be an elite soldier. There was a running, long jump, javelin, discus and wrestling. One wonders if the disc had a real equivalent to real warfare – the shield throw? – but you can see what the ancient Greeks were looking for. By 1912, the profession of soldier had changed a lot, so the event became the modern pentathlon: running, fencing, pistol shooting, swimming and horse jumping. Again, the idea was that these were important skills for a Calvary Soldier at the time and, again, it looks like they struggled to find five. Did the soldiers really need to swim that much?

There has been constant touch-ups with the event over the past century, but all five disciplines remain. It ends with a race in which athletes complete four 800-meter laps and fire laser guns at five targets between laps. None of the preceding sentences were satire. Also, the show jumping part involves the athletes riding a horse they just met, as the idea is that an ordeal wouldn’t necessarily have the luxury of Buttercup or other favorite mount. available in wartime. So you have to try to coax a foreign horse over a series of barricades, which I guess is how sometimes a horse ends up getting hit.

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As late as the end of September, UIPM, the sport’s governing body, said it did not want to make any drastic changes, while admitting that the setup may not be quite fair for horses. Klaus Schormann, longtime UIPM director, said he was “fully committed to making horseback riding an integral part of the modern pentathlon”.

His engagement appears to have lasted about five weeks. The news that the horseback riding was leaked last week was officially denied, then officially confirmed in a letter to athletes which acknowledged it could be “shocking” to some. There have been reports that cycling will replace riding, also later denied, and other reports that a different and unnamed replacement sport has been decided but could not be revealed. The governing body has since acknowledged that perhaps the athletes should have had a say in all of this, and said no further decisions would be made until a convention at the end of the month. A group of athletes have called for the resignation of Schormann and his allies.

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The pentathlon is, by any means, a wacky event – did I mention the laser guns? – but horsemanship seems rather to be an integral part of it. Modern soldiers of course don’t ride horses, but they don’t do much fencing on the battlefield either. And the odd cross-section of events is the whole problem. Great Britain’s Joe Choong, who won the gold medal in the men’s pentathlon in Tokyo, finished his 200-meter freestyle in 1: 54.87, 10 seconds behind the time that won the gold in the Men’s 200-meter freestyle. But Choong would have whipped these swimmers in the fencing event, or in the laser gun race, or, indeed, in the show jumping. Having athletes who must be able to fencing, swim, run, shoot and yet know how to cope with a horse is a key part of the zany charm of pentathlon. If you take the horses out, it is now detached from the Calvary-soldier aesthetic that has been around for 108 years.

For decades, the modern pentathlon, despite its name, did not reflect the modern soldier at all. But it featured on the Olympic program as a nod to tradition, to the roots of an event in which the ancient Greeks tested the skills of their best warriors.

Since the Olympics are always in such a rush to add new events like skateboarding and surfing in an effort to attract cool kids, it’s a shame they can’t find a corner of the program to keep something around which only exists as a link to the early days of the competition.

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