Olympic pentathlon eyes ‘Ninja Warrior’ courses for survival
The path to saving modern pentathlon from Olympic removal may just be filled with obstacles. As in, ring swings, rope mazes, balance beams and warped walls.
Imagine an “American Ninja Warrior” style obstacle course set up in the middle of the Coliseum for the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games. That sort of scene could rescue a sport facing a major crossroads.
As it stands now, modern pentathlon — a sport in the Olympics for more than 100 years — would be off the program in its current form after the 2024 Paris Games.
At issue: The horse component of an event that combines fencing, swimming, laser shooting, running and show-jumping. The equestrian element came under fire during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when a German coach was filmed hitting an uncooperative horse in the women’s competition.
The proposed solution: Obstacle course racing in place of equestrian, which the sport is testing out. There’s still time to get back on the program for LA ’28, should the International Olympic Committee approve of a change.
To some, the obstacles discipline is the ideal compromise — a way to modernize the sport as the Olympics seek a younger audience.
To others, this change would tear at the very fabric of a sport that’s intricately tied to horses.
No debating this — time is of the essence, with modern pentathlon’s congress meeting in November to vote on submitting obstacles to the IOC.
From there, it’s a waiting game to see if it’s enough.
“Changes are not something we like. But we can adapt to it,” modern pentathlete Sophia Hernandez of Guatemala said. “We have to move forward. Because we don’t want to lose the Olympics.”
Modern pentathlon has been part of the Olympics since the 1912 Stockholm Games. Really, though, its roots extend far beyond, with ” pentathlons” being traced to the 18th Olympiad in 708 BC. Then, it combined running, jumping, spear throwing, discus and wrestling. To the champion went the title “Victor Ludorum” — winner of the Games.
Over the years, the sport invented by IOC founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin has gone through several transformations. For instance, pistol shooting was replaced by laser guns before the 2012 London Games.
With the sport under pressure to remove the equestrian portion, an athlete focus group brainstormed on possible fifth disciplines. Any and all suggestions were encouraged.
Drone racing was mentioned, along with juggling, before settling on obstacle racing. It’s a nod to the popular television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
A series of test events hasn’t included giants pools to cushion falls for struggling competitors like the TV show, but the athletic challenges have been similar. There’s also opportunities for picturesque settings, too — think beach volleyball taking the sand at Copacabana Beach during the 2016 Rio Games.
First, though, obstacle racing must be approved.
To further gauge its popularity, modern pentathlon’s governing body, known by its French acronym UIPM, has conducted several test events.
Last month in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, 122 young pentathletes from 21 countries took a run through a 10-obstacle course that included various walls (going over, under and up) along with swings.
“It was a good challenge,” said Canadian teenager Connor Chow, who won the gold-medal race. “Even if some of the obstacles were scary at first, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Modern pentathlon, along with boxing and weightlifting, were left off the initial list of 28 sports on the LA ’28 Olympic program. It’s a list that included youthful sports such as skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, which made their Olympic debuts in Tokyo.
Still, there remains a pathway for inclusion for modern pentathlon, along with boxing and weightlifting, during the annual meeting of the IOC membership in 2023. That’s provided each sport shows they’ve made changes to the governance or organizational culture.
There’s also a chance for additional sports to be added for LA. It’s a crowded sports landscape, though, with lacrosse, baseball/softball, cricket, flag football, break dancing, karate, kickboxing, squash and motorsport all competing for a spot in ’28.
Modern pentathlon has deep ties to the IOC. Longtime UIPM President Dr. Klaus Schormann has served on the IOC’s working groups for culture and Olympic education. His first vice-president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was voted back onto the IOC’s executive board and could someday be in position for a run at the IOC presidency.
When the IOC effectively suggested changing equestrian, modern pentathlon sought a more inclusive discipline, one that might have legs with younger audiences. The data supported obstacle racing — “American Ninja Warrior” has had over 70,000 people apply annually from around the globe, while the total number of athletes registered on the UIPM global database is 98,000.
“Every innovation is hard,” UIPM Secretary General Shiny Fang said. “It’s really about more engagement, universality and excitement. Potentially, we could bring a new audience. That matters for the Games as well.”
There are athletes who felt those in charge haven’t listened to their concerns and a route to saving the equestrian portion exists. The group ” Pentathlon United ” formed with a mission of creating “a new, dynamic and sustainable Olympic future for Pentathlon worldwide.” The group said the decision to remove equestrian was “unfounded, unnecessary and reckless.”
Olympic gold medalist Joe Choong of Britain is among the pentathletes to raise concerns. In an email to The Associated Press, he explained that removing horse riding is “devastating for the sport.”
“I have no problem with OCR (obstacle-course racing) as an independent sport,” he wrote. “However MP is the sport I love and I think replacing any of the five sports with OCR ruins our sport. I think OCR was chosen through a completely opaque process.”
Retired Egyptian modern pentathlete Yasser Hefny hears the concerns. But the Olympian points out this is for the sport’s survival. To drop from the Olympics compromises funding and the future.
“We cannot be selfish and think, ‘Yeah, we used to do this,'” said Hefny, who’s chair of the UIPM’s athletes committee. “Instead of being a sport to try and survive in every Olympics, we want to be a leading sport.”
The reason for a possible change stems from last summer when 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 have never met before. Bonding with them quickly is part of the challenge. Saint Boy had already refused to jump for another rider earlier in the competition.
“The riding event, it’s very unpredictable,” Hernandez said. “The best athletes get sometimes the worst horses and then get eliminated and the whole four years of preparation are gone in one second. I don’t think that’s very fair.”
Some argue that adding obstacle racing in place of equestrian isn’t an apples-to-apples exchange.
“It’s this element, where you have to develop a partnership with another animal, that makes the skill set required so diverse and so unlike any other sport in the Games,” Choong explained. “Without this, we lose our uniqueness (as well as the tradition and history) — risk becoming more and more assimilated to other multi-discipline sports like triathlon.”
On a pedestal in his office, Schormann has a bust of the founder of his sport, de Coubertin. It’s a name Schormann references often — how de Coubertin would’ve embraced change to grow modern pentathlon.
“You always want to go with the time, not against the time,” Schormann said. “Build up something for younger generations to come.”
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