Modern pentathlon votes to ditch horse riding after Tokyo Olympic turmoil

Showjumping set to be replaced by cycling element following distressing scenes

Representing the biggest modern makeover in the long history of the modern pentathlon, equestrian is to be dropped from the five-discipline Olympic event, with bicycles likely to replace horses to improve fairness and eliminate concerns of animal welfare.

The International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) is set to confirm the changes on Thursday, with several reports indicating the removal of the equestrian discipline is already a done deal, although this may not happen until after Paris 2024.

Prior to the fiasco around the event at the Tokyo Olympics, some of the absurdities of its own rules unfolding only while the competition took place, the UIPM had already made changes designed to improve animal welfare by putting the horse riding part first.

In Tokyo, however, the equestrian discipline, staged on the second day, threw up several controversies, with German coach Kim Raisner seen striking Saint Boy with her fist after the horse refused to co-operate for rider Annika Schleu; Schleu was also criticised for whipping the distressed horse.

The haphazard selection of the horse Constantin possibly cost Natalya Coyle an Olympic medal, and 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 refused two fences and picked up several faults for the Uzbek rider starting down the list before Coyle; Constantin did the same again under Coyle, 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 discipline with a 64-second handicap and that was always going to be too much at the Olympics. She ended up 24th overall.

John Ledingham, Ireland’s equestrian coach for the modern pentathlon in Tokyo, afterwards wrote in this newspaper that the Games “witnessed the Olympian principle of fairness and animal welfare trampled underfoot in the riding section in modern pentathlon”, adding: “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.”

Separately, a German/English/French online petition to the IOC had of Tuesday lunchtime got 174,596 signatures. Also highlighting the welfare of the horse, it said: “The discipline of riding must be taken out of the modern pentathlon and replaced by another, more appropriate sport. This is not only in the interest of the horses, but also in the interest of the athletes, who will then no longer be faced with a requirement that they often cannot really meet.”

Later, the UIPM disciplinary panel set up to investigate the incident and review the case of Raisner found her to have violated Rule 4.6.8 – which states a “pentathlete or team is disqualified for rapping or beating a horse and all other cases of cruelty and/or ill treatment of a horse” – and upheld the decision to expel the coach from Tokyo 2020.

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 safety.

In a statement after Tokyo, the UIPM said: “The events of 6 August, 2021 in the Tokyo Stadium have caused distress both inside and outside the global UIPM Sports community. Changes in riding were already in the pipeline due to the new modern pentathlon format coming into force in 2022 for the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle. Horse welfare and athlete safety will be at the centre of this process.”

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