When Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games, introduced the modern pentathlon at the 5th Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912 (modelled on what a soldier might have to do in a war situation – shoot, fence, ride, swim and run) he never could have imagined that this action-packed and exciting-to-watch sport would suffer a serious self-inflicted wound before our eyes at Tokyo 2020.
As someone who has been involved as an equestrian in five Olympic Games (one as an athlete showjumper, one as equestrian team manager and three as a coach in modern pentathlon) tears were brought to my eyes on August 6th in Ajinomoto Stadium as it witnessed the Olympian principle of fairness and animal welfare trampled underfoot in the riding section in modern pentathlon.
What I witnessed should never have happened; it has brought the sport into disrepute; it has created enormous hurt to the victims (both human and equine); it can never be let happen again. Having said that, I do not want to take away from the incredible performances of the medal winners. Olympic champion Kate French is one of the finest athletes in any sport in Tokyo.
While some have chosen to blame athletes for what happened in the riding section, it is important to set the record straight and, importantly, to defend the equestrian skills of sportswomen who gave it their all but were denied, after five years of meticulous preparation, the opportunity to perform on what should have been the most level playing field in the world.
In the modern pentathlon the athletes do not ride their own horses; they are given horses to ride, and while I appreciate that horse selection is a lottery, it is essential that the horses selected by the organisers of the modern pentathlon for the riding phase should have experience and a proven record in competition, be mentally strong, and be used to being ridden by different riders.
Everywhere you go in the Olympic village, and in every stadium, you see the fair sport motto notices written in big letters. It’s a crying shame that organisers of the modern pentathlon didn’t see fit to take those words to heart because there was nothing fair about drawing a horse that’s clearly not fit to compete.
Saint Boy had already refused to jump three times for Russian Gulnaz Gubaydullina. This horse clearly did not want to be in the competition ring
A horse’s ability to perform in competition is based on absolute trust in the rider. In modern pentathlon the rider first sits on the horse for 10 minutes of flat work to explore the partnership. Then they have a further 10 minutes to jump five obstacles in the warm-up ring. After that they proceed to the competition arena to jump a course of 12 fences that include a triple combination and a double combination (a total of 15 jumps at a height of 1.20m).
Although the horses in Tokyo looked to be physically in very good shape, I would seriously question the mental suitability of some of these horses for competition. I base this observation on my knowledge of horses and on what I saw at close quarters.
It was the height of unfairness for two highly-rated medal contenders who were at the top end of the leaderboard after two disciplines to have had their hopes and dreams dashed by being given horses that were so obviously unsuitable for competition.
Former world champion Germany's Annika Schleu, who finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was leading the points tally by an impressive 24 points when she entered the jumping arena. Her chance of a medal, however, ended when her horse, Saint Boy, stopped and refused to go forward before crossing the start line!
It was at this point that the German coach Raisner punched the horse. Selecting a horse that is mentally unfit to compete is bad enough; what Raisner did added injury to injury. For me, as an equestrian and a lover of horses all my life, the modern pentathlon, a sport I also love, had hit rock bottom!
Raisner’s disgraceful intervention occurred before Schleu crossed the start line, and the judges delayed ringing the bell for her round to start as they could see what unfolded was not her fault.
Saint Boy had already refused to jump three times for Russian Gulnaz Gubaydullina. This horse clearly did not want to be in the competition ring. If he had refused four times he would have been eliminated and not have been presented a second time with Schleu. Instead, because he became stationary and refused to go forward, the time limit was reached and he was technically eliminated and as a result could not be substituted for Schleu.
Ireland's Natalya Coyle is a three-time Olympian and is an experienced and excellent rider. Coyle finished ninth in London 2012, sixth in Rio 2016 and was four points off a bronze medal going into the riding section in Tokyo after the fencing and swimming competitions.
In Tokyo we saw athletes reduced to tears in total frustration at the unfairness of horse selection
In Coyle’s 20-minute warm-up her horse, Constantin, appeared to be both mentally and physically in a good place. He and Coyle had formed a good bond.
Over the first eight obstacles in the jumping arena, rider and horse displayed a good partnership apart from a front-rail knock on the fourth fence, but when the horse came around to the ninth fence, he stopped. Coyle’s experience got him over this, but then disaster struck! Constantin stopped twice at the combination again, as he had with a previous rider (Uzbekistan’s Alise Fakhrutdinova). Coyle had to go around the combination obstacle and then the horse jumped the last two obstacles with ease.
It’s clear that Constantin has problems jumping combinations and should never have been selected; neither should Saint Boy. Both those horses were withdrawn from the men’s final on August 7th, further proof they should never have been in the Olympic pool of horses in the first place.
In Tokyo we saw athletes reduced to tears in total frustration at the unfairness of horse selection, horses who were clearly stressed by competition, and a coach behave in a despicable manner – flying in the face of the Olympic spirit and a lamentable advertisement in front of a global TV audience for what is a truly great sport.
The organisers of the Olympic modern pentathlon need to review what happened on August 6th in Ajinomoto Olympic stadium so that a spectacle like that never happens again. The format for Paris 2024 will have riding as the first discipline, but this will solve nothing – radical change is what is needed.
As a coach I have a responsibility to protect the mental and physical health of both equine and human athletes. So do the Olympic organisers.
John Ledingham was Ireland's equestrian coach for the modern pentathlon in Tokyo.