Haphazard horse selection costs Natalya Coyle a shot at Olympic medal

She was fourth and just two seconds off the lead going into the penultimate event

So it seems no Olympic event likes to reveal the absurdities of its own rules while unfolding in front of you more than the modern pentathlon.

It might be unfair to say the haphazard selection of the horse Constantin cost Natalya Coyle an Olympic medal, only it unquestionably cost the Irish woman a fair and proper shot at one, despite her best efforts to show them otherwise.

Competing in her third Olympics, neatly poised it seemed to improve on her ninth position in London 2012 and sixth in Rio 2016, Coyle was sitting in fourth and just two seconds off the lead going into the penultimate event, where the 36 women were randomly assigned any one of the 18 horses, each horse being used twice.

There looked to be trouble on the treble ahead when Constantin - remember the name - refused two fences and picked up several faults for the Uzbek rider starting down the list before Coyle. Constantin did the same again when Coyle made her mount, the Meath woman visibly trying everything to control the restless beast as both the ninth and 10th fences were refused.

With that Coyle also picked up 66 faults, scoring just 234 points out of a possible 300, and dropping from fourth to 19th overall. It also meant starting the 3,200m laser run with a 64 second handicap and that was always going to be too much at the Olympics. She ended up 24th overall.

There was no hiding her teary disappointment as Coyle made her way out of Tokyo Stadium in the southwest of the old city, dressed up for second day of the competition with a swimming pool, a fencing stage, a show jumping arena and an 800m running circuit.

“It’s really disappointing, it is not how I wanted to end my career,” said Coyle, who is still only 30 and later didn’t completely rule out trying again for Paris 2024.Time will tell.

“I suppose it’s just added disappointment because to be third in events and to be so close and to feel like it’s a bit snatched away from you it is really disappointing. That’s pentathlon unfortunately. I knew it was going to be tough when I watched the first rider not get around so I knew that was really tough.

“I thought I had made a good plan and it worked a lot in the arena but he just didn’t want to go near it. You know one of the fences beforehand, it was my fault, I should have checked before I thought it was all going OK and then it stopped.

“So it’s just disappointing after I had two good Games and two good horse riding events. I put so much effort into doing it, I would have liked to have a nice finish but that’s sport. It is tough.”

Indeed it is something of a lottery, and Coyle's father reminded her of as much after she finished ninth in London. She wasn't the only one undone by a bad horse: Germany's Annika Schleu was leading at the time before mounting Saint Boy, but eventually abandoned after numerous refusals and mishaps and Schleu fell from first to 31st in the standings.

There is some disputing the exact origins of the modern pentathlon and its introduction at the 1912 Olympics back in Stockholm, although the five events were designed to simulate the experience of a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines: as in being able to ride an unfamiliar horse, fight enemies with pistol and sword, swim, and run to return to his own soldiers.

For a so-called modern sport however that haphazard horse selection appears decidedly old fashioned, particularly when Olympic medals and a lifetime of training is at stake.

Luck

Coyle admitted too that she’s had more good luck than bad luck and that’s all part of the draw. Still the frustration was evident given so many other women were enjoying excellent rides on their mounts which ultimately would give them a fair and proper shot in deciding the medals.

Coyle admitted too her focus had been shot for the run, especially given the short turnaround before the laser run, normally her strongest part of the event. All horses are required to do a test round to prove their worth, only once Coyle saw the way Constantin performed in the previous run the confidence had to start drifting too.

No such worries for Britain's Kate French, the 30 year-old started the laser run in fifth position, before opening a gap over her rivals that touched 17 seconds going into the final bend to power her way to gold. Lithuania's Laura Asadauskaite, the champion from London 2012, also came from behind to win silver, with Sarolta Kovacs of Hungary winning bronze. It's Britain's first gold in the women's event since Steph Cook in 2000, and their 18th gold medal in Tokyo so far.

It won’t be any consolation to Coyle that she had put herself in medal contention before Constantin got in the way. She had built on her excellent start in the fencing on Thursday, 23 victories and 12 defeats, with a time of 2:13.88 for the 200m freestyle swim, just 0.5 outside her lifetime best. She also picked up further points in the fencing bonus round which came just before the show jumping.

“Just don’t think about it, don’t dwell on it. Just get up and do what you can do,” she said before the show jumping, and admitted she was “buzzing” after day one.

Coyle first came to this sport via Meath Hunt Pony Club. She first competed in international modern pentathlon aged 16, her Tokyo experience a reminder perhaps that these absurd old rules surely need to be modernised.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics