IImagine training countless hours for many years to reach the Olympics in rowing. You will be booked into the couple event. One catch – your partner will be determined at random. You look over and see one of your rivals along with a world champion. Your partner, however, is not sure which end of the oar goes into the water.
Perhaps the equestrian phase of modern pentathlon, in which athletes are pulled out of a horse pool, is not that extreme. The horses should at least all be able to jump over things, so the organizers don’t just borrow animals from a family that likes to ride around a bit. They just didn’t have much time to connect with the athletes who are randomly assigned to them after they finish fencing and swimming.
But the inequality in the horses assigned is evident. In 2008, the young American pentathlete Margaux Isaksen kissed her horse after a solid ride in Beijing. In Tokyo, trainer Kim Raisner hit a horse that moved German athlete Annika Schleu to tears as she fought for control of the animal, knowing she would drop from first to 31st place.
It wasn’t all Mongo in Blazing Saddles, but the whipping and hitting was certainly enough to get Peta to call for modern pentathlon to leave things to the people instead of bringing animals that never signed up for it.
Even without the animal welfare aspects, show jumping is a strange addition to a multidisciplinary test of athletic abilities. Schleu is quite capable of riding other horses, which she has proven in an outstanding international career. She had a near-perfect ride when she took silver at the Modern Pentathlon World Championships in 2018 and again a few months ago when she finished fourth that year. But at the Olympics, she was stuck with a horse that didn’t benefit, and her medal hopes went down the drain.
The German compatriot Isabell Werth, seven-time Olympic champion in horse-specific dressage, has seen enough of the animals in modern pentathlon. “You might as well give them a bike or a scooter,” Werth told the SID news agency.
Scooters in particular seem unlikely, but the modernization efforts of modern pentathlon continue. In 1992 the event took place over five days. In 2012, the sport combined shooting and running, mimicking biathlon. That year, most of the fencing was done separately, but the swimming, a fencing bonus round, horseback riding, and laser running were all done at Tokyo Stadium, which also hosted soccer and rugby during the games.
It’s a shame the fans weren’t allowed to see a truly unique competition that involved building an outdoor short-course pool, but it was also a bit artificial. Fans who came to the stadium would not have seen the fencing “ranking”, which had already separated the women from the field with 150 points between first and last. The swimming phase did not get to the point of the overall ranking and the “bonus round” in fencing awarded only six points in a sport in which the winner landed with 1,385 points.
They want to go further by 2024. The plan is to condense a sport that once lasted five days to 90 minutes.
A lot of the changes actually made things better. Decathlon and heptathlon should pay attention to the handicap start of the laser run – the more points you have, the earlier you start the run – this means that the first person to cross the finish line has won gold.
But condensing the event to 90 minutes does not solve the biggest problem facing the sport, which raised its ugly head in Tokyo. It’s the horses. You might as well acknowledge that horse drawing is a lottery and replace it with a 21st century episode like scratch cards.
Rewind. The emergence of the modern pentathlon is a scenario based on the attributes required of a 19th century cavalry officer. A soldier must escape the enemy by shooting and sword fighting, then riding an unfamiliar horse, swimming across a river, and running to safety. The scenario is certainly out of date – a modern soldier likely doesn’t wear a rapier – but organizers can try to keep the narrative going while they replace the horses.
Given the popularity of esports and the importance of technology in the modern military, maybe a round of Call of Duty would work. But we have other options that are already on the Olympic program.
The multitude of martial arts – boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, etc. – can be redundant and impractical. Karate’s Olympic tenure could be short anyway, since the kumite discipline “I can hit you softer” does not go down well with an audience used to MMA.
Instead, we could look at the “escape” aspect of the soldier saga. Escape on a skateboard or surfboard seems unlikely, and surfing would ruin the sport’s ambitions of wanting to take place in one place anyway. Canoe / kayak and rowing would also be logistically difficult. Cycling could be a viable option, perhaps with a time trial on a miniature cross-country track.
The best choice, however, is one of the newer, youth-oriented sports in the Olympics. No, not breakdancing.
It fits both the narrative of the sport (a fleeing soldier may have to climb a cliff) and its overarching goal of testing general athleticism. Then one option could be to take over a fitness center for swimming, fencing, and climbing, and then move to a nearby park for running and shooting.
Even better: add climbing walls to the run-and-shoot course.
Even better, switch from swimming to running / shooting / climbing in triathlon style.
Of course, none of the top athletes are top climbers right now and it would be unfair to expect them to master the sport before the next Olympic cycle. ready for a full introduction at the 2028 or 2032 Games. In a sport often decried as elitist, this would also open doors for more participants. Sure, learning to climb isn’t cheap, but it’s much more accessible to the average person than show jumping.
However, any of these options are better than watching some species conflict that is awkward to look at and puts much of an athlete’s chance of winning on the luck of the draw.