Cruel and random modern pentathlon should replace horses with climbing

Imagine training for countless hours for many years to reach the Olympics in rowing. You’re slotted into the pairs event. One hitch – your partner will be determined by random draw. You look over and see one of your rivals paired up with a world champion. Your partner, on the other hand, isn’t sure which end of the oar goes in the water.

Perhaps the equestrian phase of the modern pentathlon, in which athletes are assigned mounts by draw from a pool of horses, isn’t quite so extreme. The horses should all be able to jump over things, at least, so organizers aren’t just borrowing animals from any family that likes to ride around a bit. They just haven’t had much time to bond with the athletes who are randomly assigned to them after they’ve finished fencing and swimming.

But the disparity in allocated horses is vivid. In 2008, young American pentathlete Margaux Isaksen kissed her horse after a solid ride in Beijing. In Tokyo, coach Kim Raisner punched a horse that had brought German athlete Annika Schleu to tears as battled to control the animal, knowing she was about to fall from first to 31st.

It wasn’t quite Mongo in Blazing Saddles, but the whipping and punching were certainly enough to make Peta call for modern pentathlon to leave things up to the humans rather than bringing in animals who never signed up for this.

Even without the animal-rights aspects, show jumping is an odd fit for a multidisciplinary test of athletic prowess. Schleu is perfectly capable of riding other horses, as she has shown in a stellar international career. She had a nearly perfect ride when she took silver in the 2018 modern pentathlon world championships and again a few months ago when she finished fourth in this year’s worlds. But in the Olympics, she was stuck with a horse who was having none of it, and her medal hopes went down the drain.

Fellow German Isabell Werth, a seven-time Olympic champion in the horse-specific event of dressage, has seen enough of the animals in modern pentathlon. “You could just as easily give them a bike or a scooter,” Werth told German news agency SID.

Scooters in particular seem unlikely to be added, but modern pentathlon’s efforts to modernize are ongoing. As recently as 1992, the event took place over five days. In 2012, the sport combined the shooting and running, mimicking biathlon. This year, the bulk of the fencing was done separately, but the swimming, a fencing bonus round, the riding and the laser run were all conducted in Tokyo Stadium, which also hosted some soccer and rugby during the Games.

It’s a pity fans weren’t allowed in to see a truly unique competition that included the construction of an outdoor short-course pool, but it was also a bit artificial. Fans who turned up to the stadium would not have seen the fencing “ranking round,” which in the women’s competition had already separated contenders from the field with a 150-point disparity between first and last. The swimming phase didn’t shake up the standings that much, and the fencing “bonus round” awarded no more than six points in a sport in which the winner wound up with 1,385.

By 2024, they plan to go even further. The plan is to take a sport that once took five days and condense it to 90 minutes.

A lot of the changes have indeed made things better. Decathlon and heptathlon should look into the laser run’s handicap start – the more points you have, the earlier you start the run – that means the first person across the finish line has won gold.

But condensing the event to 90 minutes doesn’t solve the sport’s biggest problem, which reared its ugly head in Tokyo. It’s the horses. They might as well acknowledge that the horse draw is a lottery and replace it with a 21st-century corollary like scratch-off tickets.

Rewind a bit. The genesis of the modern pentathlon is a scenario based around the attributes needed by a 19th-century cavalry officer. A soldier needs to escape the enemy by shooting and sword-fighting, then riding an unfamiliar horse, swimming across a river and running to safety. The scenario is certainly dated – a modern soldier probably isn’t carrying an epee – but organizers can try to keep up the narrative while replacing the horses.

Given the popularity of esports and the importance of technology in the modern military, maybe a round of Call of Duty would work. But we have other choices that are already on the Olympic program.

The bevy of combat sports – boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, etc – might be redundant and impractical. Karate’s Olympic tenure might be brief, anyway, as the “I can hit you softer” discipline of kumite doesn’t play well with a viewing audience accustomed to MMA.

Instead, we could look at the “escape” aspect of the soldier’s saga. Escaping on a skateboard or surfboard seems unlikely, and surfing would ruin the sport’s aspirations of taking place in one venue, anyway. Canoe/kayak and rowing also would be difficult logistical fits. Cycling could be a viable option, maybe with a time trial around a miniature cross-country course.

The best choice, though, is one of the newer, youth-oriented sports in the Olympics. No, not breakdancing.

Sport climbing.

It fits both the sport’s narrative (an escaping soldier could conceivably have to scale a cliff) and its overarching goal of testing overall athleticism. Then one option could be to commandeer a fitness center for the swimming, fencing and climbing, then move to a nearby park for the run and shoot.

Even better: Add climbing walls to the run-and-shoot course.

Even better: Have a triathlon-style transition from swimming to the running/shooting/climbing race.

Of course, none of the top athletes at the moment are elite climbers and it would be unfair to expect them to master the sport before the next Olympic cycle, so the changes could be phased in slowly starting with junior events in the next few years, ready for a full introduction a the 2028 or 2032 Games. In a sport that is often decried as elitist it would also open doors for more participants. Sure, learning to climb isn’t cheap, but it’s a hell of a lot more accessible for the average kid than showjumping.

Any of these options, though, are better than watching an interspecies conflict that’s uncomfortable to watch and places much of an athlete’s chance of winning on the luck of the draw.

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