Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Modern Pentathlon

Games and Rings
5 min readAug 2, 2022

Will Modern Pentathlon Stay ‘Modern Pentathlon’?

The conclusion of the UIPM Pentathlon World Championships this past weekend had me thinking of the sport and its future. Namely, will modern pentathlon stay ‘modern pentathlon’? That’s a key question these days, as the sport is under the gun to drastically reform — become more viewer-friendly, more accessible, more…well…”modern” in order to survive as an Olympic sport. How did it get here?

A multi-discipline pentathlon competition featured prominently in the Ancient Olympics. Inspired, Baron Pierre de Coubertin worked to create a ‘modern’ version to fit into his new modern Olympics. The sport made its Games debut at Stockholm 1912, and has featured in the Summer Games since. With its mix of fencing, swimming, show jumping, shooting, and running, legend has it that the sport was developed around the theme of a wayward soldier fighting his way through various challenges to return to his side of the battlefield. In fact, the majority of the earlier competitors were military men.

Man in a sports uniform aims a pistol at a target
Gen. George Patton was a Stockholm 1912 modern pentathlete (UIPM)

The first world championships were held in 1949, and today, the annual competition features events for individuals, teams, and relays for men and women, and a mixed gender relay. And it is a truly global sport, with over 90 national federations spanning all continental regions. These last championships featured ten medal-winning nations across seven event, and spanningEurope, Asia, Americas, and Africa.

Cut to Tokyo 2020, and the sport experienced perhaps its most prolific Olympic coverage yet. Unfortunately, that was thanks to dire (to say the least) problems in the women’s equestrian portion. In more than one instance, horses — which are assigned blindly to athletes — balked at jumping at an unusual rate, creating havoc in the standings, images of horse abuse, tears from athletes, and unwanted attention from PETA. This certainly was the catalyst for the Olympic powers-that-be to renew a demand to change.

a woman cries while riding a horse in an arena
Annika Schleu had an infamous ride at Tokyo 2020 (PA)

The sport has seen reform before. Long criticized as too obscure and with too un-TV-friendly a competition, it’s shrunk from five days to one (not including qualifying and semifinal rounds), and integrating the shooting portion to within running — now a ‘laser run’. But now, the change requested — er, required — is to completely drop the equestrian portion. And, in order to stay true to the ‘pentathlon’ meaning, replace it with a new element. So… here comes obstacle racing. That’s obstacle racing a la Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Ninja Warrior, or Tough Guy events — the latter being credited as the first ‘official OCR’ event.

This is not change on a scale the sport has seen before. This is not akin to basketball introducing a three-point line, or American football introducing a two-point conversion, or canoeing adding in a new extreme slalom event. This is completely removing one core element and replacing it with another that has no history in nor connection to the sport. It’s as if triathlon were to drop its cycling portion for climbing instead — a complete different skill set, and a whole new sport made up. Granted, all sports are ‘made up’…modern pentathlon’s origins certainly being no exception.

I get it. Remaining on the Olympic program could very well be crucial to the sport’s overall survival. As a sport with limited visibility and limited viewing attraction, modern pentathlon — not unlike its winter cousin Nordic combined — may not be able to exist at all for long without the Games. But doesn’t the fact the sport is currently the only sports created for the Games count for something? That this sport is the personal project of the modern Olympics’ founder? Was the Tokyo 2020 debacle really that disastrous, and not just a one-off? Couldn’t refinements to the equestrian portion be made?

I have no stake in this, other than as an Olympic sport fan who tends to veer on the side of traditionalism of the Olympic program and appreciates a slow, measured ‘reward’ of a sport’s inclusion into the Games. The rapid rise and inclusion of sport climbing, surfing, skateboarding…and (jnsert face-palm emoji here) breaking…give me pause when far more established, global sports such as squash never get a chance, or others like karate and softball get pushed in and out, while still popular. I know, I know…the Olympic program can’t fit everyone in, and sports come and go in fashion (everyone remembers that tug-of-war and polo were in the Games once, right?). Plus, marketing is a necessary component of the Games, and a marketer prioritizes what brings in the kids and the TV money, and evolution is good, right? But, still…

In response to the coming change, some of the leading athletes of the sport formed Pentathlon United, to (attempt to) counter the “unfounded, unnecessary, and reckless” decision to change the sport. It’s likely all for nought. The UIPM — International Modern Pentathlon Union, the governing body — has held an official obstacle course test event, with plans for more, soon. And, its representatives are increasing their call for the ever-increasing-in-popularity obstacle-style racing to be included somehow. The change to modern pentathlon is certainly a way to bring ‘ninja warriors’ into the Olympics without the formality of a new sport application.

two women maneuver across bars on an obstacle course
Contestants try out an obstacle course test competition (UIPM

Modern pentathlon’s new look may be approved for Los Angeles 2028, so we’ll still have Paris 2024 to appreciate what the sport is now…and to contemplate modern pentathlon life’s questions. Will current obstacle race specialists take on fencing, swimming, running enthusiastically? Will the obstacle race overshadow the other elements? Will this still be ‘modern pentathlon’, even if that’s still the name? Surely, it will be a sport consisting of five events. And it will be ‘modern’. But will it be ‘modern pentathlon’? What’s in a name, after all?

I suppose that wayward soldier of lore could have faced an obstacle course along the way back home. Maybe that is just an undiscovered piece of the legend. Maybe that soldier just doesn’t need a horse anymore, after all.

Originally published at https://www.gamesandrings.com.

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Games and Rings

An Olympic sports fan with an Olympic sports fan blog. Follow me celebrating Olympic sports athletes, with a cheeky twist @ gamesandrings.com