Pentathletes revolt — and what dropping riding means for all horse sport

  • THE world of modern pentathlon is in revolt against the decision to drop riding from the sport – as equestrians are warned the move could have wider consequences.

    World governing body UIPM’s announcement that showjumping would be replaced after the Paris 2024 Olympics sparked outrage, with national federations and athletes among those who disagreed with the move.

    Kate Allenby, who won pentathlon bronze at the 2000 Games, is among the members of a group called Pentathlon United, as are some 900 pentathletes from across the world.

    “We formed because the athletes are up in arms at the decision to remove our equestrian discipline from our sport,” she told H&H, adding that pentathlon without riding does not fulfil the sport’s creator Baron de Coubertin’s vision of a complete sport.

    “By removing the riding, it feels they’re almost chopping off an arm,” she said.

    H&H has reported that the UIPM decision was made by its executive board, without consultation. Federations and athletes believe this process was unconstitutional, which UIPM denies, and the Danish federation has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on this basis.

    Issues raised include the fact the executive board is not allowed to make such a decision; these should be made at the UIPM congress and supported by a certain percentage of the vote.

    It is understood that UIPM has cited extraordinary circumstances allowing the move, but campaigners disagree this was the case. The executive board added a last-minute item to the agenda of the UIPM 2021 congress asking delegates to confirm its decision, which was passed by a vote. Campaigners say this late adding of an agenda item is also unconstitutional.

    Ms Allenby said concerns have also been raised over the voting.

    She added that Pentathlon United has been in discussion with national and international Olympic committee members and athlete representative bodies, to “make sure the athletes’ voices are heard”.

    “Some national federations aren’t listening but we want to keep riding,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of work to be done.”

    Danish federation president Benny Elmann-Larsen told H&H the appeal to CAS is ongoing, and that he believes it is possible to keep riding in the sport.

    “That’s what a big majority of athletes also think,” he said. “UIPM has simply not been up to the task of keeping the riding problem in order. We’ve had problems at several Olympics and it was clear the riding standard in Tokyo was too low but if the rules don’t prohibit bad riders arriving at the Olympics, that’s the result. It’s UIPM’s responsibility to get things fixed, and we think that can be done, but if nothing is done, nothing happens.”

    Mr Elmann-Larsen said the hope is that CAS will overturn the decision to drop riding, and he thinks there is “a good chance” of this.

    “Then there will be an opportunity,” he said. “It’s a bit of a paradox that those trying to fix the problem are the athletes, who have never really had a voice in these things. It’s interesting that most of the athletes seem to think the situation can be fixed, whereas UIPM has done very little to try to fix it over the years. It’s a very interesting situation to be in.”

    Mr Elmann-Larsen said there is action that can be taken to improve the standard of riding.

    “The UIPM has been frantically trying to present the sport in the context of other new sports, which is doomed to fail, as they’re different sports. In trying to make it as accessible as possible, you end up with something that isn’t modern pentathlon any more,” he said.

    Another wider concern over the removal of riding is what effect this may have on equestrian sports. There have been petitions launched and letters written calling for all horse involvement in the Olympics to cease since the scenes in the modern pentathlon in Tokyo.

    H&H has long reported on the need for horse sport to keep its social licence to operate – essentially public acceptance of the involvement of horses in sport – and World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers said the UIPM decision could be significant.

    He reiterated his earlier comment to H&H, that decisions on the sport are down to UIPM, but that the charity did not agree dropping riding was the right way forward.

    “The problem isn’t people riding, it’s the rules of the competition,” he told H&H. “I feel very strongly about that. It’s not for us to say how they run their sport but we’d seriously question the decision and what it’s based on, as I don’t think that’s the core problem. Banning it seems to be treating the symptoms rather than the cause.”

    But Mr Owers said the decision is a “real wake-up call” for the horseworld.

    “There are two key parts of social licence; doing right by our horses and being seen to do right by them,” he said. “In the second part, if you talk to anyone about horse sports at the Tokyo Games, the vast majority would hone straight in on the pentathlon; it shows that as far as the public is concerned, it doesn’t matter if it’s polo, racing, pentathlon; it’s all horse sport.

    “People often think, ‘My discipline is fine, it’s that one that’s the problem,’ but every discipline has room to improve, and as far as the public is concerned, there’s no difference. It’s all horse sport to them, and this is a very timely reminder of that. It doesn’t matter if something happens in any discipline and it doesn’t matter where; it affects us all.”

    Mr Owers said the decision was “very unfortunate and even dangerous” as it may be misinterpreted by some, and used by those who “want to ban far more than riding in the modern pentathlon”.

    “It sets a dangerous precedent, because I don’t think it’s based necessarily on what’s best for the horse, and it could be used against horse sport,” he said.

    Mr Owers added that general understanding of welfare and ethics is improving all the time, and that although there are people who want to see horse sport banned, there is also a “vast majority who are open-minded”, and not knowledgeable about riding and horse sport but not against it, who can be educated.

    “It’s up to the sport to celebrate the horse-human partnership and sell the story of what horses bring to people and vice versa,” he said. “It’s a collective responsibility; we all have a role to play. We need to embrace that rather than reacting in the way pentathlon has done.”

    UIPM declined to comment when approached by H&H but in a statement after its congress, said delegates voted 81% in favour of dropping riding and opening a consultation for a replacement sport.

    President Klaus Schormann said: “The high majority in favour of this decision gives us a very comfortable feeling and confirms that the UIPM executive board acted in the interest of the UIPM family. The debate was fair, open and very clear. Delegates were given the opportunity to speak in chronological order according to a queue system, with no preferential treatment and full transparency.

    “As UIPM president, I am very happy that we will retain the team that has worked so hard for so many years in the interests of our union and our sporting movement. This allows us to continue our discussions, to focus on our priorities for the future with a visionary spirit and a commitment to innovation.

    “I ask our national federations to remain with us in this spirit so that we are united, working in solidarity for the future for all our sports so that we can keep modern pentathlon in the Olympics and continue to progress all the UIPM Sports that offer us such a strong base for promotion and participation.”

    • What do you think about the UIPM decision and its possible repercussions for all horse sport? Send your thoughts to hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and country, and you could win a bottle of Champagne Taittinger

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