The ‘Modern Pentathlon’ is Anything but Modern

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The Tokyo Olympics were unmistakably one of the most sustainable and forward-thinking games we’ve seen to date. Eco-friendly efforts included medals made from recycled electronics, podiums made from recycled plastics and the cardboard beds which made it onto the “for you page” of millions on social media platform ‘TikTok.’ One element of the games however has left a rather more sour taste in the mouths of many spectators – The Modern Pentathlon.

The so-called Modern Pentathlon” involves 5 events: fencing, freestyle swimming, showjumping, and combined pistol shooting with cross country running and was founded by Pierre de Coubertin, who is credited with founding the modern Olympic games. The main issue with this event is not the showjumping element itself, but the way that athletes and their steed are matched. One of the rules of the event is that riders must be paired with a horse around 20 minutes before the event begins, meaning the ride is new to each competitor and they have no prior experience, bond or chemistry. 

The Olympic Games prides itself on a number of principles with athletes competing at the top of their respective sports. However, I think I can safely say that both fairness and humanity were severely lacking when German coach Kim Raisner struck the horse that athlete Annika Schleu was riding. The horse, called Saint Boy, was clearly terrified; as seen in pictures taken of the event, his rider Schleu visibly sobs as the horse refuses to jump, and at one stage refuses to move. I firmly believe that Schleu had a perfect opportunity to dismount when Saint Boy wouldn’t move forward and continued to nap. Instead, she decided to proceed with her showjumping round which quickly moved from bad to worse, removing Annika Schleu from gold medal contention. When I first saw the situation unfolding, I first felt angry and remember exclaiming to myself “what the hell, that’s outside interference!” taking me back to my days of fence judging pony club events with my dad. Yet it only subsequently occurred to me how wrong what had just happened was. She had, to all intents and purposes, just punched a horse. A horse that was already quite clearly terrified and didn’t understand what was going on. Whilst Raisner was banned for the rest of the tournament, I thought that surely her career was over and wondered to myself how long it would be before PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) launched a piece of editorial copy about how the Olympics must cease to use animals if people are clearly incapable of treating them fairly and humanely. 

Despite this instance of abuse witnessed on screen, the argument for removing horses from the Olympics simply doesn’t sit right with me. When you reflect on the equine events of Tokyo 2020, we saw Charlotte Dujardin, a dressage gold medalist in a number of previous games, celebrated on the front pages of newspapers up and down the country. She once again achieved phenomenal success with her horse Pumpkin after her triumphs with former ride Valegro. Although her successes are numerous, nobody could possibly suggest that Charlotte treats her rides with contempt. She is one of the most formidable horsewomen that the sport of Dressage and the equestrian world has seen. So considering that, and the fact that this was an isolated incident within Modern Pentathlon, I firmly believe that change needs to be reflected in that sport alone. Germany’s Modern Pentathlon Union Representative, Gulnaz Gubaydullina, spoke out shortly after the event and called for reforms to the sport. However, it was somewhat too late. The statement was merely an afterthought provoked by shameful levels of sportsmanship and morality in the race for success.

The story of Schleu and Raisner is one that will stick in the headlines, and rightly so, for months to come as more and more angles to the story unfold. Only this week a celebrity made a bid to buy Saint Boy. It was ‘The Big Bang Theory’ actress Kaley Cuoco who offered to buy the horse to show him “the life it should have.” It’s hard to disagree with any of Cuoco’s stance, although cynics have been quick to suggest it’s a way of her putting her name into a headline. The Guardian has also brought the story back once more this week, suggesting rock climbing should replace the equestrian event, but does that really address the matter in question? If we’re serious about addressing equine welfare in the Olympics in the wake of the modern pentathlon, then simply removing horses from the equation isn’t the answer. The answer we need to look for is a more ethical one, for a sport that audiences in 2021 are satisfied with; longer familiarisation times, riders bringing their own horses or even simplifying the equestrian elements. To see what real changes are made, we’ll have to wait for The Olympics to land on French soil. 

Words by George Icke

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