The International Modern Pentathlon Union has dealt with controversy, a PR nightmare and a fracturing of the membership since the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo and now is trying to move into a new era after one of the most significant transformations an Olympic event has ever undergone.
UIPM delegates voted in November 2022 to replace equestrian riding with obstacle racing by a 69-11 margin. The decision was met with mixed reactions, but the organization felt it was the only path to give pentathlon a future in the Olympics.
“Conversations and discussions with the IOC and Olympic stakeholders have been taking place for many years — it became very clear that UIPM must dramatically change Modern Pentathlon to remain relevant and retain our place on the Olympic program,” said Yasser Hefny, UIPM athletes committee chair. “It was very clear, where riding presented limitations and barriers for the development of the sport, obstacle presents a pathway to create a whole new fanbase and a new era for the sport.”
While a segment of the pentathlon community voiced strong opposition to the change, it was reported that the IOC essentially gave UIPM the ultimatum of losing riding or losing its spot at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles ahead of a final decision on the sports program this October at the 140th IOC Session in Mumbai. While nothing is guaranteed, modern pentathlon appears to be in a better position than it has been at any point since a German coach in Tokyo physically abused an uncooperative horse on worldwide TV and forced the UIPM’s hand.
“The Tokyo situation was a terrible incident, unacceptable and completely abnormal in modern pentathlon,” Hefny said. “Everyone in the UIPM movement cares deeply about equine welfare in our sport — we all have a deep love for horses. I can’t deny that the incident didn’t have an impact on the speed of change.”
UIPM is now looking to grow the visibility of pentathlon with obstacle racing in the mix. While equestrian is a niche event that requires a horse, obstacle racing creates millions of new potential competitors. Obstacle racers are the target audience of a new UIPM brochure entitled ‘Get Started with the new Modern Pentathlon’.
“Obstacle presents such a huge opportunity to tap into entertainment and mass participation markets,” Hefny said. “It will significantly broaden the number of potential athletes in our sport and make modern pentathlon more dynamic and more appealing to young audiences worldwide. At a minimum, we’re talking about access to a pool of 20 million obstacle course racers of all ages worldwide.”
American Ninja Warrior and its various spinoffs around the world have created a large audience with an appetite for seeing elite athletes push themselves to the limit physically. Hefny points out more than one billion people in 160 countries consume obstacle competition broadcasts.
But the most important piece of this puzzle is whether the competitors like the change to obstacle. A whopping 88% said they were satisfied with the overall test experience when five test sessions were held around the world last summer. There’s also a financial component in play. UIPM calculated an obstacle course costs up to 10 times less than riding.
“Change is never easy,” Hefny said. “However, following comprehensive testing and the work of the New Fifth Discipline Working Group, many competitors who were unsure about obstacle discipline are now much more welcoming and many are very excited and ready to adapt. Pentathletes are famously versatile and we love a challenge.”
UIPM will organize one last equestrian riding event at Paris 2024 before moving on while striking a balance in keeping the riding supporters and the racing supporters on the same page.
“Athletes are the heartbeat of our sport, so we are also extremely focused on delivering the best possible riding events in the lead up to and during the Paris 2024 Olympic Games,” Hefny said. “But we are acting as one united community. A community with a clearer understanding of the future of our sport and faith that everything we are doing will benefit millions of young pentathletes for generations to come.”