Proposed Changes to Modern Pentathlon Prompt Chaos in the Sport

It began with a woman punching a horse. Now the future of the Olympic sport is up in the air.

Britain's James Cooke reacts after the men's individual laser run of the modern pentathlon during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Stadium on August 7, 2021.
Britain's James Cooke after the men's individual laser run of the modern pentathlon during the Tokyo Olympics in August.

It began with a woman punching a horse.

During this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, German coach Kim Raisner sought to control the horse being ridden by Annika Schleu during the modern pentathlon competition. Raisner struck the horse and was promptly ejected from the Olympics as a whole.

Historically, show jumping has been one of five components of the pentathlon; the others are fencing, swimming, pistol shooting and cross-country running. But earlier this months, reports emerged that the Olympics would replace show jumping with cycling moving forward to reduce the potential of cruelty to animals. At the time, PETA called for the removal of all equestrian events from future Olympics.

That’s not the only upheaval taking place in the sport. As Barnaby Lane reports at Insider, the horse-punching scandal and its aftermath have left modern pentathlon in disarray. Why? The decision made by the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) to remove show jumping has frustrated some athletes, and the question of what the equestrian component would be replaced with also remains open — cycling no longer seems to be a certainty.

Several athletes that Insider spoke with expressed their frustration with the UIPM because athletes weren’t consulted in the question of whether or not to replace show jumping and, more broadly, because of the way that the equestrian portion of the competition is handled.

This includes athletes being asked to use a shared pool of horses and having to deal with disparities in the obstacles they’re given to jump over. (It also helps explain why some of these issues seem confined to the equestrian portion of modern pentathlon and aren’t occurring with the dedicated equestrian events as part of the Olympics.) Samantha Murray, who won a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics, compared the experience to “driving around in a Mini Cooper and then suddenly jumping in a Jaguar.”

The controversy in Tokyo is revealing longstanding issues within the sport — and the athletes involved are understandably frustrated with its governing body. It’s not hard to see a way that this all gets resolved, but it’s just as easy to imagine a scenario where even more discord takes center stage.

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