Where do I start?
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been deemed as a great success for most sports. Modern Pentathlon has been shown in it’s worst possible light with respects to the equestrian phase of the event, showjumping, after a shocking display of riding ability and horsemanship, particularly in the women’s competition on Friday 6th August 2021. This said the men’s competition definitely was a step forward from the women’s, but still some way to go to satisfy the equestrian community as a whole, due to the issues raised after the women’s event.
Firstly, something you guys need to know about me… I am an ex Great Britain Modern Pentathlete, with a strong equestrian background. Starting out in Pony Club, I grew to love all sports and found my place with Modern Pentathlon. I retired from the sport in 2016 and started to do showjumping, as an expensive hobby. My views on the events that took place at the Tokyo Olympics in Pentathlon are one as an ex pentathlete myself, but also a horse lover and a strong part of a thriving equestrian community.
Written by Harry Sykes
Let’s start with the obvious… the rules.
As I am sure you are all aware now, Modern Pentathlon is five sports; Fencing, Swimming, Showjumping, Running and Shooting. The athletes complete all 5 of these events in just one day (soon to be changed to 90 minutes, but that is for another post). The sport has evolved a lot over the past 20 years and it is “committed” to making the sport more “spectator friendly”. With regards to the rules, modern pentathlon is always looking to change the rules, for the better. The rules for the showjumping phase haven’t been amended for quite sometime and the UIPM (international governing body for modern pentathlon), has commented on this to say that it will be investigated and changes will be put in place to increase the safeguarding of horses and athletes.
The rules used in MP, closely follow those used in FEI or British Showjumping with a few changes, such as if you stop 2 times at a fence, you move onto the next fence, or that if you fall off your horse you are not eliminated and the time doesn’t stop (unless a fence has fallen), so you must get back on and complete your round. Among other things like you only 20 minutes to warm up a horse you have never ridden before, jump a maximum of five fences and then jump round a course of 120cm. The rules in place with regards to safeguarding the horse and the welfare of the horse, is no different to BS or FEI.
Continue reading below…
Annika’s Melt Down
The German Pentathlete, Annika Schleu has been in the sport for a number of years and is starting to come to the end of her career. With this probably being her last Olympics and being one of the top ranked athletes in the sport there was a lot of expectation for her to do well. After a strong fence and swim she was in 1st place by quite a big margin going into the ride. The standard of the women’s riding shocked a lot of people in and out of the equestrian community and was widely seen as a welfare issue with horses being subject to some horror rides.
Annika has plenty of experience riding at this level and has always been strong in the riding phase. “Saint Boy” was the horse Annika had drawn for the ride and she then had to wait and watch the athlete from the Russian Olympic Committee, Gulnaz Gubaydullina. Unfortunately, Gulnaz is not the strongest of riders and as the round went on Saint Boy lost more and more confidence. In the end she was eliminated and then it was the turn of Annika.
Before I continue, let’s just get something clear. A lot of the backlash for the issues raised at this Olympic event are aimed at Annika for the way she treated the horse. Although many comments are valid, as she did handle the situation in the worst possible way and there was a welfare issue with regards to the horse and how it was treated, she doesn’t deserve the level of abuse thrown at her on social media. With the current rules, she was handed an impossible deck of cards. There would be very few of us “Equestrians” that would have been able to get Saint Boy round the course after the Russian, despite what many comments say on social media telling Annika what she should be doing, “to let its head go” and to “relax, Saint Boy is too tense”, which yes, all are correct, but we are not in Annika’s position and in that situation we sometimes don’t see things clearly. The horse was in distress before Annika got on and the real solution should have been to remove the horse from the competition all together (which they later did before the men’s event).
With that out of the way, we can move on. I have been told by athletes out in Tokyo that Annika was struggling in the warm up for the show jumping and didn’t get on well with Saint Boy. Although there is a reserve horse that can be called upon in such instances, the horse had already been used with a previous athlete. As Annika entered the ring it was all red lights with Saint Boy refusing to walk forward let alone jump round the course. It was at this moment, after trying for around a minute to get Saint Boy to walk forward by using her leg aids and vocal encouragement, that she decided to use her whip to get him to go round the course (with some outside assistance from Annika’s German coach). This was streamed all over the TV channels globally and online. The coach was later banned from the 2020 Olympics and Annika was forced to be eliminated after multiple refusals and crashing through fence number 6. Annika was very emotional and was left in floods of tears as she left the arena in nearly last place.
“Riding to COMPLETE, not to COMPETE”
When I asked a professional showjumper what they thought of Modern Pentathlon, they told me this one quote and it changed how I view the riding phase of MP. “Modern Pentathletes ride to complete and not to compete”.
Having been there, I know that when you in the ring, you just want to complete the course and having a couple of poles down or a stop doesn’t matter. It is just simply a stepping stone that Pentathletes must do to get to the end goal of winning. This mentality it what feeds the culture of horses being used as tools within MP. When the horse doesn’t play ball, it is like a computer that just won’t do what you want it to do, you get angry, maybe bang the table in frustration… this is completely wrong. But it is how the showjumping is seen in Modern Pentathlon currently (by certain individuals).
Key Issues Raised
There were various issues raised and put forward to the UIPM to address after the women’s event. Here a few examples:
- Pentathletes should not be jumping these heights of fences with their current standards. Each country has it’s own standards of riding to meet and these needs to be raised, until then the height of fences should be lowered or maybe even a different discipline considered.
- There is a welfare issue with how the horses are treated with such riders and the horsemanship involved has been shocking (particularly in the women’s).
- The officials need to be upholding the rules that are in place, they are there to protect the horses and the riders. Of course these rules need looking into and changed accordingly.
These three points were mentioned a lot over the past few days and they are now in the hands on the UIPM after thousands of complaints after the events of Friday 6th August.
Continue reading below…
Should They Be Showjumping At All?
There have been calls for the showjumping to be axed from modern pentathlon, or at the very least lower fences or even dressage/style is involved.
In my opinion, whether that is what should happen or not, you are talking about changing a sport’s core values that have been around for over 100 years. It will take time for the evolutionary changes to take place.
Here is what I feel needs to happen to move forward:
- EDUCATION – In modern pentathlon there were very few of us that came from a horse background many just started riding because it was the last of the 5 sports to learn. They haven’t gone through the process of learning horsemanship in the depth that is required, they don’t show the horses the respect, they are seen a piece of SPORTING EQUIPMENT. This needs to change, the athletes need to be educated on horsemanship not just how to get around a set of fences and staying alive!
- The officials and coaches need the same education. The whole sport has a culture of horses being used for the sake of it being in the sport. The officials don’t see it any different and that needs to change in order to uphold the rules in place.
- Standards need to be raised, globally. Pentathlon GB showed their one of the best in the showjumping phase of modern pentathlon, with all 4 athletes (men and women) having good rounds and showing the sport in a better light. As a nation we do not allow athletes to compete in the riding phase, until they have passed an assessment set by the one and only Jabeena Maslin, and I can tell you, she doesn’t make it easy to pass. This standard needs to be rolled out to all pentathlon nations in order to bring the standard up.
- Until there is a much better universal standard, maybe an alternate can be in place, such as a short dressage test or a smaller course of show jumps.
- Riders need to learn to praise the horse for their job no matter what the result is. I learnt this from a young age around horses and pentathletes need to do the same.
This was a particularly bad Olympics for Modern Pentathlon riding and maybe more needs to be looked into before people call for the sport to be axed. That said animal welfare is paramount and until it can be guaranteed, things need to be changed, immediately.
Let’s Finish On A Good Note
Although this was a dark time for Modern Pentathlon, the two shining stars for Great Britain were Joe Choong and Kate French! Both taking home the GOLD in MP at the Tokyo Olympics 2020. They had great rounds in the showjumping and ultimately is what secured them these gold medals. I am so happy for both of them knowing how hard they worked for this and glad that there were no British pentathletes at the end of some harshly worded comments on social media. WELL DONE Pentathlon GB!
A final shoutout to the Austrian Modern Pentathlete Gustav Gustenau. Having a riding background really shone threw at these Olympics where he rode one of the best rounds I have ever seen from a Modern Pentathlete, jumping a flawless 300 points score inside the time allowed. This round has not had the recognition it deserves… remember guys, he only sat on the horse for the first time 20 minutes ago and jumped round a 120cm course, like it was a Saturday afternoon at Keysoe! Massive kudos to Gustav! (Pictured below). If you haven’t seen his round I would urge you to see it as he shows what pentathletes can be like.