By all rights, the modern pentathlon should be the most epic of all Olympic sports. It’s the sort of sport that a group of mustachioed Victorian gentlemen might have dreamed up over cognacs down at the club. In the modern pentathlon, competitors engage in five events: Pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, running, and show jumping. They’re exactly the sort of activities that a proper gentleman might engage in on a mounted hunt, especially if his horse chose to dump him in a river and he’s forced to duel with a passing bear. It’s the sort of sport that I imagine bored cavalry officers came up with during a lull in fighting on the battlefield. In short, victory in the modern pentathlon should be a lot like winning at manliness.
Unfortunately, the modern pentathlon has gone horribly awry, and as far as I can tell, it’s because the participants have failed to properly train for the whole thing. In looking into the modern pentathlon — which I’d never seen before, if I’m honest — I’m struck by the fact that, although none of these athletes would dream of entering the pentathlon if, for instance, they didn’t know how to swim, apparently they don’t see it as a problem at all that they don’t know how to ride.
Protip: Climbing on a living breathing animal and trying to ride it over jumps can, in fact, be just as deadly as drowning in the pool. Also, it makes you look like a complete tool.
It says in the pentathlon rules that the athletes must ride horses which are not familiar to them, but they seem to have taken that one step further by deciding that they should not be familiar with riding horses, period. After spending a few rage-inducing hours watching videos and looking at photos from past competitions, it seems that the average pentathlete’s strategy is to careen around the course at an uncontrolled gallop, while clinging like a monkey so as not to fall off the horse. (They seem to fall off a lot anyway, so I guess as strategies go it’s not a winning one.)
Take for instance Korean athlete Hwang Woojin, whose horseback emergency management skills were not at all up to par when his horse immediately expressed his displeasure with being roped into this event in London 2012. Woojin reacted to his emergency in exactly the wrong way by basically pulling the horse over on top of himself. Apparently he was able to remount and ride the course with 464 penalty points for his troubles, though whether that means that he cowboyed up in spectacular fashion or whether it just makes him insane remains to be seen.
This Olympics saw the gold medal go to Czech David Svoboda; I can only assume that he had a better run this year than he did in Beijing, because this is what his ride looked like in China. As you can see in these other photos, in which the athletes display their mastery of show jumping and their impeccable jumping form, these are highly skilled horsemen who–
Sorry, I couldn’t keep typing all those blatant falsehoods. These fine people have learned to shoot and fence and swim and I suppose all human beings know how to run pretty instinctively. I can’t speak to how well they do any of those things (but it doesn’t seem like they’ve got the concept of fencing quite in hand either), but I can tell you that apparently actually knowing how to ride, before representing their respective countries on the world stage at the Olympics, hasn’t occurred to many of them.
Look, I don’t like to make fun. These are Olympic athletes. They are in better physical condition than I will ever be in in my life, and I wouldn’t want to play against any one of them in a game of laser tag. I’m not a show jumper by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll just give you all this video of World Cup men’s riding highlights, and you can tell me what you think of their form. Personally, I watched these horses flying over (and sometimes through) these fences and wanted to have myself a little cry.
I have no doubt that there are pentathletes who are fantastic horse riders. I also have no doubt that all of them ought to be. Because the thing is, this is not an individual performance. The moment you get the horse involved, you’re part of a team. And most of these riders don’t seem to realize it.
I was going to continue telling you about the pentathlon history and stuff, but I kept watching that video and found that Omar el Geziry was far surpassed by the 2010 world champion, Russia’s Serguei Karyakin, who not only rides a horrible round (see it here at 27:31) but also apparently blames his horse for it, considering the way he gratuitously beats the poor animal and snatches at its face as punishment for the bad ride.
You will also undoubtedly find the commentators’ remarks infuriating, as one of them is a pentathlete himself and also likes to talk about what the horse did wrong. I will tell you what these poor horses did wrong: they allowed their grooms to catch them this morning. I have never seen so many rails go down in a single event. Their jump crew must have enormous muscles from picking up a million and one downed rails per day. I have never seen so many horses display the patience of saints as they sailed half out of control and completely ungracefully over a series of jumps. And lest you think it’s just the men, you can watch the women’s competition “highlights,” too. I put highlights in quotations there, of course, because I’m not sure highlights is the right word.
Riders are accustomed to being told by our friends that we aren’t doing any work when we ride, that the effort is all on the horse’s part. We all know that’s not true, of course, that riding well takes a lot of effort from the rider, too; the best riding is a result of partnership. But in the case of the modern pentathlon, apparently, it’s true that the rider doesn’t need to do much at all, because these horses are pointed at the fences and then left to do their jobs not only with no help from their rider, but with active interference.
Apparently the modern pentathlon has been an endangered event at several times in the past, with Olympic planners wanting to drop the event, which is costly to put on and not particularly popular. It’s been granted a stay of execution several times, with Princess Anne and Prince Albert coming to its defense, and apparently some completely clueless individual described it as the “sport that most accurately conveys the ideals of Olympism.” If so, that doesn’t say much for the Olympics. And I’m not sure “ideals” is really the word.
Unlike many sports in the modern Olympics, the modern pentathlon is truly amateur. As this great piece in The Atlantic points out:
In a culture where we celebrate our biggest sports stars as often as they celebrate themselves, maybe there’s something to be said for the Modern Pentathlon. Maybe it’s because of sports like these—so pointless, so non-remunerative, so culturally irrelevant—that we care so much about the Olympics. We care because of the real amateurs who toil in obscurity for little more than the purity of the pursuit.
I can absolutely get behind that, but not at the expense of the horses, who don’t get much choice about competing and who don’t even get the benefit of experienced handling like the rest of the Olympic horses do. (Putting aside, of course, the rampant practice of rollkur among dressage elites, because that’s a whole other rant that we don’t have time for.)
Here’s my idea: Remove the show jumping round, because the competitors apparently don’t have the resources to learn how to show jump. Replace it with, I don’t know… a BMX biking round or a unicycle-riding round or a jumping round where instead of a horse they ride a motorized pogo stick. I don’t see how any of those things would be considered less legitimate as Olympic pursuits than things that are already included in the games, like trampoline and racewalking (which are both modern Olympic sports featured in the current games). Let the athletes show their own physical abilities and leave the horses out of it, and we’ll all be better off. The horses can have a nice lie-in, the athletes are less likely to be killed by their runaway unicycles, and it’ll definitely be a beneficial move for my blood pressure.
Edit: The Guardian has a fantastic photo collection from the London 2012 pentathlon riding, which features heavily on some truly spectacular falls, and also offers some pretty funny captions to help you enjoy the action. The New York Times also had a good article about the horses and how they are selected and paired with riders, and which discusses some of the difficulties in sourcing appropriate mounts at various competitions (but which, I think, overlooks the fact that the athletes aren’t exactly holding up their end either). There’s also a hilarious thread over on Chronicle of the Horse in which posters shared their own feedback about the event as they watched.
For US viewers, if you’d like to check out the replay you can find it online here, with both the complete coverage of the men’s riding and the women’s riding. If you watch you will have the distinct pleasure — or displeasure, whichever way you want to look at it — of seeing some truly phenomenal horses attempt to save the collective bacon of their amazingly unprepared riders. The horses of the London games, and the people responsible for their selection, really ought to be the ones walking away with medals. I could not be more impressed with the caliber of horses offered at these Olympics and the effort those animals put in; the people of Britain should be justifiably proud.