The modern pentathlon has been part of the Olympic Games since 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. But its roots extend far back in time. Five-discipline pentathlons can be traced to the 18th Olympiad in 708 B.C. Back then, the event for all-around athletes combined running, jumping, spear throwing, discus, and wrestling. To the champion went the title Victor Ludorum, Latin for “winner of the games.”
Over the years, the sport invented by International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin has gone through several transformations. For example, pistol shooting was replaced by laser guns before the 2012 London Games. Now the pentathlon is under pressure to remove an equestrian show-jumping portion. That requires athletes to ride horses they have never met before. Bonding with the beasts quickly is part of the sport’s challenge. Sadly, the element received criticism during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics when a German coach was filmed striking an uncooperative horse in the women’s competition.
As it stands, the pentathlon won’t be included after the 2024 Paris Games. But if the IOC approves a replacement element, pentathletes could be back in the saddle—figuratively. The event could return to the program for LA 2028.
To help solve the issue, an athletes focus group brainstormed new disciplines to preserve the sport. All suggestions were encouraged. Drone racing was mentioned, along with juggling. (Imagine Olympic juggling!) But the group proposed obstacle course racing as a solution—the kind patterned after the popular television show, American Ninja Warrior.
To gauge its appeal and feasibility, UIPM, the modern pentathlon’s governing body, conducted several test events. One took place in September in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy. There, 122 young pentathletes from 21 countries navigated a 10-obstacle course. They ran, climbed, and swung over, under, and up various walls, gaps, and partitions.
The decision to make any change is controversial. To some, the obstacles discipline is the ideal compromise. It’s challenging and serves to modernize the sport as the Olympics seek a younger audience. To others, the change tears at the fabric of a sport they see as intricately bound to horses.
Retired Egyptian modern pentathlete Yasser Hefny is chair of the UIPM’s athletes committee. He hears the concerns. But the Olympian points out a need to sacrifice one’s own affections for the sport’s survival. The alternative would mean dropping from the Olympics entirely.
“We cannot be selfish and think, ‘Yeah, we used to do this,’” says Hefny. “We want to be a leading sport.”
Why? Adaptability is sometimes a necessary trait, involving self-sacrifice in order to achieve a greater end that serves many well.
Olympic obstacle course, that sounds like fun. I watch the Olympics every year, and the summer ones are always my favorites. I can't believe that the Olympics are going to be held in Paris next year!! So exited.
Obstacle courses could be a fun alternative, but there is something about being able to ride a horse. There should just be rules against abusing the horses. Like if you are beating on them like that coach was doing them you get penalized or disqualified.