Patrick Burke

There is a considerable sense of irony about obstacle being chosen by the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) to replace riding as the sport's fifth discipline from after the Paris 2024 Olympics.

The sport which has been an Olympic ever-present since Stockholm 1912 makes capital of its creation by International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder Pierre de Coubertin, but has several obstacles to overcome if its transformed format is to salvage its place at the Games from Los Angeles 2028.

And time is not on its side, with a final decision due to be made at the IOC Session in Mumbai from October 15 to 17 and pivotal discussions likely to take place at Executive Board meetings before then, including the upcoming one from Tuesday (March 28) to Thursday (March 30).

Modern pentathlon has long faced questions over its future at the Olympics, with a lack of popularity and participation, and the complexity of bringing five disciplines into one competition among the criticisms.

More recently, modern pentathlon has suffered potentially fatal damage to its image after the scandal at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics involving the horse Saint Boy.

German trainer Kim Raisner was sent home in disgrace after being filmed hitting the helpless horse.

The scenes were disgraceful, widely condemned, and prompted calls from animal welfare groups including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for equine events to be removed from the Olympics.

Months later in November 2021, plans for riding to be dropped were revealed which have divided modern pentathlon.

A group of more than 650 athletes including Britain's Olympic champions Joe Choong and Kate French immediately called on UIPM President Klaus Schormann and the Executive Board to step down back in November 2021.

Since then, a host of governance concerns have been aired by the Pentathlon United pressure group.

The scandal involving the horse Saint Boy at Tokyo 2020 was widely condemned and damaged modern pentathlon's image ©Getty Images
The scandal involving the horse Saint Boy at Tokyo 2020 was widely condemned and damaged modern pentathlon's image ©Getty Images

German official Schormann is the longest-serving leader of an Olympic sport having held the role since 1993, but is something of a marmite figure within modern pentathlon and the Olympic Movement.

Critics have alleged continued attempts to intimidate athletes and officials opposing his direction for modern pentathlon, and characterised his leadership as dictatorial, something he has vigorously rejected,

The Pentathlon United pressure group have criticised the process that led to the UIPM adopting obstacle as riding's replacement in the Olympic format, effective from after Paris 2024. 

A lack of transparency, ignoring the will of athletes and "vote-stacking" are just some of the charges laid at the door of the UIPM, and Pentathlon United has called for an IOC investigation into its governance.

Prior to the Congress, Pentathlon United-backed Australian official Alex Watson made a late bid to challenge Schormann for the Presidency, but a required vote of no confidence was defeated by 55 votes to 13.

The UIPM is pressing ahead with its aims to woo the IOC with the obstacle discipline. This week, it released a brochure entitled "Get Started with the new Modern Pentathlon" targeted at obstacle course racers. 

It's a brochure which speaks to what the IOC is being asked to approve for inclusion at Los Angeles 2028 - not far off an entirely new sport, certainly one in which the dynamics have completely changed, under the banner of modern pentathlon.

Schormann claimed this would bring new athletes and audiences to the sport and make it more accessible.

He has still got a long way to go to win over his biggest critics within the sport.

"They're saving the Union, but they're not protecting pentathlon," is how Britain's Sydney 2000 Olympic bronze medallist and key Pentathlon United supporter Kate Allenby described the situation to insidethegames.

Pentathlon United fear for fencing's future in modern pentathlon's Olympic format too, and have pointed to a lack of a planned ranking round venue for the discipline at Los Angeles 2028 and its limited presence on a pyramid outlining different levels of UIPM competition in its recently produced brochure.

The UIPM wants obstacle to feature as part of modern pentathlon's format at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics ©UIPM
The UIPM wants obstacle to feature as part of modern pentathlon's format at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics ©UIPM

Allenby feels athletes competing in the sport under its current format have been left in a confused situation, and that the inclusion of obstacle fails to satisfy IOC requirements for a reduced cost and complexity of modern pentathlon.

"The transitional generation has been thrown under the bus, and where is the support for them?" she asked.

Watson provided a deeply sceptical assessment of the UIPM's communication since the Congress, which opponents claimed was held remotely in an attempt to stifle debate.

"The reason we're in the situation is 20 years of mismanagement of the sport," he told insidethegames.

"People can say Kate Allenby and Alex Watson are just a bunch of disgruntled people who are hanging onto horse riding and have got a romantic attachment to horse riding and they can't move on, and they're not open to change and progress.

"That's the propaganda.

"The truth underlying all that is what happened in Tokyo is just the tip of the iceberg of years of neglecting the management of horse riding, and that's led to all these problems."

One of the key members of the UIPM Executive Board is Spanish official Juan Antonio Samaranch, who is also an IOC vice-president. He warned at the Congress that modern pentathlon had "zero chance of continuing in the Games" if it did not approve the changes, although acknowledged "it's not a guarantee that we will be successful."

Watson disputed that assessment, and urged: "Have the IOC put that in writing, that's my response."

He was competition manager at Sydney 2000 and is a former UIPM Executive Board member. He said that there had been attempts to "discredit me and rubbish me", including reference to his disqualification as an athlete at the Seoul 1988 Olympics for excessive level of caffeine.

Watson cleared his name to compete at Barcelona 1992 after the testing procedure was discovered to be inaccurate, and pointed to the fact "they still allowed me to be a member of the Executive Board and run the sport in Sydney, so there's a lot of ironies there".

Long-serving UIPM President Klaus Schormann has faced accusations of a dictatorial style of leadership, but has argued obstacle would attract new athletes and audiences to the sport ©ITG
Long-serving UIPM President Klaus Schormann has faced accusations of a dictatorial style of leadership, but has argued obstacle would attract new athletes and audiences to the sport ©ITG

He still believes in the sport's potential, but not in its current leadership.

"My honest opinion is that a really good sports management team that governed this sport could make pentathlon fulfil all the IOC criteria and the sport could be very attractive to spectators and sponsors," Watson insisted.

"I'm very proud of the Sydney model. It was a very successful Games for pentathlon, the horses were magnificent, they were well cared for, the spectator attendance were well cared for, and it was a great sport to watch.

"That's what we need, but we've got an Executive Board that are just absorbed in self-interest, and Congress was a complete denial of due process.

"Any serious opposition or debate on the issues was just shut down, and they manipulated the whole thing online and said 'we've got 80 per cent of the vote' - it's the Vladimir Putin model of democracy."

With time running out to save modern pentathlon's Olympic status, Watson said "we're not just a bunch of whingers, we have solutions, but the first thing and most important thing is governance, transparency and accountability". He did not rule out another leadership challenge.

"I am willing to challenge for the leadership if there is an opportunity to save the sport and make it appealing to athletes, spectators and sponsors," Watson said.

"I believe I demonstrated in the past by financially successful events that I can do this. There’s plenty of evidence of that. If I was leading a good team at an open, accountable and professional UIPM I believe we would deliver a sport the IOC would be very happy with.

"My style of leadership is by good sports management as opposed to the central focus being sports politics and self-interest.

"I would serve for four to eight years maximum and get the sport up on its feet, then gladly hand over the reins to a competent contender."

Former UIPM leadership challenger Alex Watson observed
Former UIPM leadership challenger Alex Watson observed "20 years of mismanagement of the sport" ©ITG

Modern pentathlon was one of three sports left off the initial Los Angeles 2028 programme by the IOC in December 2021, the others being boxing and weightlifting.

Many observers have written off boxing given the deterioration in the relationship between the IOC and International Boxing Association (IBA), which feels further away from reinstatement than at any point since its suspension in 2019.

Yet boxing provides guaranteed box office viewing at the Olympics, and the sport if not its governance offers plenty to the programme. Opposition within the IBA to its controversial Russian President Umar Kremlev has mysteriously gone quiet too, even with several nations boycotting the ongoing Women's World Championships in New Delhi.

Weightlifting appears to be going in the right direction under the International Weightlifting Federation's new leadership, which would leave modern pentathlon in the biggest predicament out of the three sports at risk.

The IOC is being asked to take a big gamble by the UIPM on what is a significantly divided sport. Will the governing body be able to convince it that it is a reliable custodian of modern pentathlon, and the new format will add value to the Olympic programme at Los Angeles 2028? It's a question that will be answered in the next six months or so, and perhaps determine Schormann's legacy after three decades at the helm.