Last winter, the International Modern Pentathlon Union (Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, or UIPM) decided to remove equestrian show jumping from its slate of five sports. Without directly referring to the controversy that occurred during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games last summer where a German coach was seen striking a horse, the committee determined that “critical reforms” were necessary for the maintenance of the sport.
The reaction has been mixed. While Australia’s modern pentathlon governing body has supported the decision, many of the sports’ elite athletes have denounced it. Britain’s Joe Choong, the current men’s Olympic gold medalist for the sport, has been particularly vocal about the decision, saying that not only were current athletes not a part of the decision to remove show jumping, but they also only learned about it from reading the news reports the day after the UIPM met.
Choong states that there had been no discussion about removing show jumping prior to the meeting and claims that the voting took place in secret. UIPM board members claim pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make the sport more appealing to young people. Modern pentathlon has been a core Olympic sport since 1912. However, with growing pressure to include sports with greater accessibility, modern pentathlon’s future in the Olympic Games might be threatened because, as the IOC puts it, “riding limits participation.”
Choong believes that the UIPM’s governing board is out of touch with what their athletes believe. Prior to the vote, a UIPM Athletes Committee survey revealed that more than 75 percent of pentathletes wanted to keep show jumping as a part of their sport. However, according to Choong, during the vote, a 60-year-old board member and former athlete stated that his voice represented those of the pentathletes, an idea Choong found ludicrous.
Choong is not oblivious to the issues within his sport. In an opinion piece he wrote for InsideTheGames.biz, he believes that more attention ought to be paid to the horses’ welfare. “I would welcome communications with riding authorities like the International Equestrian Federation, who I know are interested in helping and discuss how to change the current riding format to put horse-and-athlete welfare at the forefront of changes,” he wrote.
Choong also knows that public opinion is against them, thanks in part to the viral video of German Olympian Annika Schleu crying atop her assigned horse at the Tokyo Olympic Games. However, he states that the current UIPM president has held his position for 28 years and has not addressed any of the concerns about animal welfare. He states that the way to solve the problems with show jumping isn’t to remove it, “but to face up to (the problems) and discuss them, together, to save pentathlon and save the horses.”
Modern pentathlon began as a showcase for necessary skills an elite cavalry officer would need if trapped behind enemy lines, or to deliver a message during a battle. As a sport rife with tradition, Choong and many other pentathletes believe that eliminating riding would turn it into a “weird mix of five different events.”
Changing the internal structure of the sport might also change its status as a core Olympic sport to one that only appears in rotation, as wrestling and squash were recently designated. The IOC has not yet determined its core sports for the 2028 Summer Games.