Modern penthathlon's modernisation

When the behaviour of a single horse triggers the reformatting of an entire sport

Welcome to the latest edition of SSWOS, the Sick, Sad World of Sports, where sports is the mechanism by which we learn about the depths of shithousery and assholery and dipshittery of the human soul.

I hope you find it fun or informative but not both. If you want more of this particular species of brain worms, follow me @scksadwos.

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Modern pentathlon’s modernisation

All sports are made up. Most of the really big sports around the world either emerged from natural human behaviours, mostly the desire to be faster or athletically better than one’s rivals, or from quaint, and frankly strange, village games in England or the United States that were popularised at the barrel of a gun.

There’s not many examples of sports created without centuries of preceding tradition and evolution. In the late 19th century, when the football codes were settling on their forms that would look vaguely familiar to today’s eyes, a new sport was created in the heady vein of modernism that was the style at the time.

As the modern Olympics were an echo of the ancient Olympics, so the modern pentathlon was created as an echo to the ancient pentathlon. The latter comprised running (probably about 180m), javelin, discus, long jump (different to the modern version) and pankration, which I am given to understand is something like an ancient Greek equivalent to MMA1.

These were the skills required to be a successful infantryman in a Greek army, so the modern pentathlon was modelled along the same lines2. The skills needed to be a cavalry officer3 behind enemy lines were swimming, fencing, pistol shooting, show jumping (importantly on an unfamiliar horse - that will be relevant later) and cross country running.

Instead of the modern pentathlon emerging from an evolutionary process or satisfying an innate human desire to race or even existing in any sense outside of the Olympics, here is an event created specifically in response to the culture and politics of the time4. It feels very inorganic.

Then imagine what it takes to be good at modern pentathlon. The men's record for the laser run is under ten minutes for 3.2 km of running, which is an impressive pace but doubly so considering they stop several times to go pew pew with a fake gun. I'd require a fairly sophisticated doping regimen to get up to that speed, even without the shooting5.

These people are legitimate athletes and they have to be good at horse riding and fencing to be competitive. Take three seconds to think of the people who have access to those resources and those are modern pentathletes. De Coubertin would be proud.

It’s these things, it’s that the modern pentathlon only turns up every four years at the ass end of the Olympics program and, until recently, took far, far too long to complete to satisfy modern broadcast requirements, that the modern pentathlon exists in this non-space in the sporting consciousness. It’s more like an odd bit of trivia, a little like when you find out that Great Britain are the reigning Olympic tug of war champions. Huh, weird.

In many ways, it is the perfect Sick, Sad World of Sports sport.

Which brings us to Saint Boy.

This little shit wouldn’t behave, killed Annika Schleu’s chances of winning the gold medal and was punched by the German coach6.

At the best of times, equestrian sports exist in the grey area of animal cruelty, ranging from horse racing (almost certainly cruel) to dressage (silly but with minimal risk to the equine participants and unfortunately, extremely boring7). There’s almost certainly a reckoning coming for equestrian in general and the UIPM - yes, that is the governing body for modern pentathlon - might be the first to respond.

Putting aside the whole point of the show jumping round of the pentathlon is that the horse is unfamiliar, and therefore might be a little shit, and the athlete is meant to overcome that as an innate part of the challenge, this is a crisitunity for the UIPM to make a bid for relevance. Again.

Since 2000, the modern pentathlon has been undergoing a continuous series of changes to make the sport more, or even remotely, spectator and broadcaster friendly. Administrators must have realised that the story and the idea of the sport was not sufficiently interesting to engage wider attention and that’s why no one gives a shit about it.

The men’s team event was scrapped at the Olympics and a women’s event introduced. The time taken to complete was reduced from multiple days to a single day. The events are co-located as best as possible with the dream to have the entire penathlon completed in one stadium (is swimming next?). The fencing leg was reduced dramatically in length. The laser gun came in and was then combined into a biathlon with the cross country run.

Now, the horses have to go because sometimes they don’t play nice, even though that was kind of the idea. The UIPM released the following list of criteria that the new sport must meet:

Follow the Coubertin narrative of the most complete athlete

Not fall under the governance of another IOC-recognised International Federation.

Allow for global accessibility and universality

Be attractive and relevant for global youth and future generations

Provide for gender equality and fairness

Meet sustainability and legacy requirements of IOC Olympic Agenda 2020+5

Be exciting and easily understandable for TV / digital audiences and all sports fans

Be low-cost for both athletes and organisers (lower equipment costs and fewer officials)

Result in minimal injury rates and be easy to learn and train based on athletes’ existing skills

Not cause transportation and logistical complications

Fit inside new Pentathlon Stadium and urban settings

Be compatible with new 90-minute elimination format

Be compatible with current handicap start and continuous event concept

Cycling was touted in The Guardian as the likely replacement candidate. That means that cyclocross, easily the cycling discipline which most resembles show jumping, could be easily setup in a stadium and is a supreme vehicle for watching elite athletes just eat absolute shit, should be a shoe-in for the 2028 Olympics.

To “Not fall under the governance of another IOC-recognised International Federation” is a weird stipulation. Depending on your view of the laser run, swimming at least is definitely the remit of FINA and fencing is definitely the remit of the FIE. It suggests that cycling is unlikely, unless the UIPM get really creative and introduce some sort of bicycle laser joust.

The IOC does not recognise esports, so that would make it a possible candidate. However, it is very difficult to imagine athletes going from fencing to swimming and then to sitting down and playing League of Legends or FIFA or Fortnite for an hour before suiting up for the laser run. Cycling esports is out because the UCI, as usual, has grabbed on to any format it can.

It’s entirely possible that UIPM has no idea what it’s doing at this stage, other than what has been included in the press release.

Lastly, we discover how this whole story relates to the central thesis of this newsletter. From The Guardian:

While the decision has not yet been announced officially, it is already facing a backlash from some countries who believe that losing the horse-riding element fundamentally changes the sport...

The former British modern pentathlete Kate Allenby, who won a bronze for Team GB at the Sydney Olympics, told the Guardian any move to replace riding would be a “disaster” for the sport. “This needs talking about because it’s not modern pentathlon if it hasn’t got riding in it,” she said.

Nothing screams “I have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on around the world” than demanding that the modern pentathlon retains the equestrian component, which last for about half an hour for each athlete but requires a huge amount of investment (somebody has to maintain and train the horses) and massively increases the carbon footprint of the sport (somebody has to move the horses around, never mind their own emissions) and is grossly out of reach of all but 99.9% of people on the planet to even contemplate undertaking, never mind where it sits on the cruelty spectrum.

I think the UIPM is doing the right thing here, especially if its goal is to propagate itself into perpetuity which, like all human organisations, it is. First, they’ll have to get through people like Allenby above because who knews there were hardcore modern pentathlon traditionalists? Because of course there are.

The grace, the beauty of sports


Reader Arnd Spock of Cuite, Brazil, writes:

Should Purdue be in consideration for a CFP spot?

That’s a great question, Arnd. The answer is no, obviously not at 6-3 and the Big 10 is the NL Central of college football, but as an avid fan of Team Chaos, watching them defeat ranked teams like Iowa and Michigan State is fun. College football is full of dumb bullshit like this, which is why I’m coming around on it.

Mail in your questions with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Sick, Sad World of Sports, Locked Bag 6969 in your capital city.


Thanks for reading.


Source: Mary Renault.


It’s entirely possible that this is apocryphal. I shan’t be researching because it doesn’t actually matter for the point I’m making.


The Olympics were designed to be for gentlemen only and a gentleman does not go into battle on foot.


Even the national football codes (Australia, Ireland) can at least mythically tie themselves to a history and a place, even if its ex post facto.


At time of writing, your correspondent would take over 17 minutes to complete 3.2km but I could probably get that down to something starting with a 14 if I was younger and in shape. So still four minutes off the pace and I haven’t spent the day fencing nor have I stopped several times to pretend to shoot a target.


It was not a good Olympics for German coaching which included this incident, this incident and this incident.


Unless, like my mother, you just enjoy watching horses and you know who’s using the bastard training methods and who isn’t.