The Modern Pentathlon, And Why It Makes Me Want To Punch People

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.)

Hwang Woojin’s day did not go well. Click the image to watch the video.

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.

If you skip to 15:45 in the video, you can watch Egypt’s Omar el Geziry both completely stuff up the course and be a total berk to his horse! Click on this image and you will be treated to his atrociously bad ride and even worse sportsmanship.

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.

Go ahead, Serguei. Beat your horse some more. That will totally help when the problem is your shitty riding.

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.


25 thoughts on “The Modern Pentathlon, And Why It Makes Me Want To Punch People

  1. Oh-o-o-o-o-o wish I could have written this myself. There’s not a word in here that I disagree with.

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  3. I had always been a big fan of the modern pentathlon, but after Atlanta I gave up on it. I think the Olympic organizers need to re-evaluate how they get their horses for the competitors. In Atlanta they leased them for the events, I doubt very much the owners would have wanted their horses treated this way. And I think the horse owners should pursue cruelty charges if their horse has been beaten like the Russian rider did

    • I really do think it would be an awesome sport if they maybe adjusted some things or had better training budgets or *something*. I’d love to participate in it myself, it’s kind of a perfect union of a bunch of sports that I think are wicked.

      It’s been suggested on a few of the forums and whatnot that they make stiffer rules for the show jumping portion… not least of which would be immediately disqualifying anyone who is deliberately abusive toward the horse as several of the riders in those videos were. I can see the many reasons why the competitors treat the show jumping phase as a trial to get through rather than something to excel at, but I do wish it weren’t the case, and when it’s to the detriment of the horse I think it’s also to the detriment of the whole sport.

  4. I think they should require that these people have their own horse for the competition. Then maybe they’d think seriously about how they ride when they’re clearly ruining their own chances at winning, and I bet they’d get better at riding when they had one horse to work with consistently. Seems like a half-assed sport as it is now.

    • I kind of really respect the fact that these athletes don’t have their own horses… I rode for a time in IHSA and we also drew our horses, and I thought it was terrific experience, plus it does a lot to level the playing field between the rich competitors and the poor ones. Though I’m sure some of them are filthy rich (I’m betting those two brothers from Egypt are absolutely loaded :D), a lot are students and I would guess have a very hard time funding their participation in the sport, moreso if they had to keep their own horses as well.

      I think maybe the governing body should think about restructuring their scoring system though, because it’s entirely possible for the athletes to have a horrible ride and still be in the medals. They put the emphasis on the other events, and rightly I think, because they can still win without the riding. Most of them seem to come into the riding with the attitude that they just need to survive it and hopefully pick up some more points. In the COTH forum someone pointed out an interview with one of the athletes from this year’s Olympics who said that he trains for the other events like 5-6 days a week, and trains for the riding portion once a week or once every two weeks. Considering the riding portion is the one where they’re most likely to be trampled to death, you’d think they’d put more training time in just out of self-preservation. ;D

  5. I have attended two Olympic Games….Atlanta, USA and Sydney, AUS for another sport (cycling and later mountain biking). I have spent 40 years riding horses and I had NO idea this event existed and that people who have VERY LITTLE equestrian experience are paired up with horses they do not know! How horrible for the horse!! This is ridiculous! It is one thing to put two people together. They can talk, share, plan and quickly when the press is on. But the “riding” in the videos above is HORRIBLE. The horses had to literally fight to jump and save themselves. I am disturbed by this event and do not support it whatsoever!

    • I think it could be reformed into being a very exciting sport — in fact I’d love to participate in it myself — but I agree with you, as it stands now I think it’s fairly disgraceful to even have it in the Olympics with the horse-riding portion of it. The horses are definitely the ones who lose out and the rate of athlete injury seems to be pretty high, considering how often they come off or almost come off. Not to mention the horses could be hurt since they’re often crashing through jumps instead of jumping over them (and the riders don’t tend to be very nice on the bit, either!).

  6. This is a great article! It’s sort of infuriating that this can be called an Olympic sport! I couldn’t even watch more than a few minutes of these videos. Not only was I appalled by the riding, but I wanted to beat the commentators. I hate when people blame their own lack of talent on the horse they are riding. Especially in that 3rd video, I wouldn’t have gone over the jumps either were I in the horse’s place, but it can’t POSSIBLY be the rider at fault. Grr. These athletes should pick one event and choose to actually get really good at it and not just be mediocre (and I even hesitate to be that generous) at a bunch of things. I did get a good laugh at the comments from the pictures in The Guardian, though!

    • Yes, the commentators in those videos I linked to were very bad, particularly the one who apparently is also a pentathlete and likes to blame the horse for all the problems. The horses they had at that world cup competition were clearly not the greatest ever.

      If you can stand to watch it you might want to try watching the footage (which I linked to in the edit at the bottom) from the London 2012 games. The horses that Britain assembled for the competition were absolutely phenomenal and the BBC commentators I thought were pretty wonderful… they sang the praises of the horse a lot and though I haven’t had a chance to watch the full video for both men’s and women’s events yet, I also didn’t hear a single instance of them blaming the performance on the horse. (There were a few times where I swear they were shaking their heads over the poor riding. :D)

      I don’t know how the athletes would compare to specialists in the other events, but I do think it takes a heck of a lot of will to work toward being competitive in an event like this one. I think it’s a really cool event in theory, it just doesn’t necessarily work out in practice. I have a lot of respect for the training they must do to excel in the running, shooting, swimming and fencing, I just wish they’d give the riding equal (or more, considering how poor some of the riders are) time.

  7. You know, I had no idea this sport even existed. I mean, I’d heard the name, but had no clue that horses were involved. I boggle at my own ignorance.
    But more to the point: I’m horrified at the appalling abuse of the horses by some of the riders. It’s bad enough that most of the riders have no idea what they’re doing — it looks like they don’t even know it’s possible to plan their approach to a jump and count strides; the poor horses save the riders from themselves far more often than they deserve — and that they haul away mercilessly on the reins. (Seriously, it’s okay to grab the mane in order to stay on the horse and spare its mouth. Really.) But some of these people are flat-out abusive. It’s intolerable, and there should be a way to heavily penalize or even disqualify riders for it.
    I’m really shocked that this is allowed to continue.

    • It was quite a surprise to me, too! I thought perhaps I was being oversensitive and I am anything but an expert on jumping form, but even the horse-clueless people I’ve shown the video to have been able to see that the quality of the riding is appalling. I couldn’t believe that this was the standard set for the Olympic games.

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  9. Brilliant blog article – couldn’t have said it better myself. I am just horrified these horses have to tolerate such riding. The videos of previous MP events with the downright abuse of the poor horse is just disgusting. I was floored by the lack of riding skills when I watched the replay. If the horse owners really knew what their horses would have to go through, I doubt they would be willing to let their horse participate in this event. Thank you for the enlightening and entertaining blog.

    • Thank you for reading Elaine! From the sounds of it some of the people who did allow the use of their horses were not pleased to see how they were ridden, but that’s only a few second-hand accounts I’ve heard so I really don’t know. I do think the horses that Britain put together were absolutely first-rate, though, and exhibited saint-like patience with all they had to put up with.

  10. Aw you can’t remove show jumping, just because there is a lot of idiots riding their poor horses….

    then we should exclude dressage as well, because those horses are subject to much more abuse on a daily basis that I bet these show jumpers are…

    The equstrian world needs a make over, rules need changing, and mabye the dificulty should be easier in both show jumping and dressage so there was no need for people to force their poor animals the way we see most of the time these days…

    but there are nice show jumper’s out there… I know I’m not proffesionel, but I love jumping, my horses love jumping with me and for me, and if it is done correctly, there is no harm to the animal… in fact, a good jumping horse must love it, otherwise it’s never going to be good at it…

    • I agree with you that grand prix dressage is in need of some major reform, but there is no dressage in the modern pentathlon. Maybe you’re confusing what I’m talking about with 3-day eventing (which is rad, by the way)? I’m absolutely not advocating an end to jumping horses; I’m a big wuss and don’t do it personally but I think it’s awesome. I’m advocating that these people specifically competing in the modern pentathlon, most of whom DON’T KNOW HOW TO RIDE AT ALL, should not be subjecting themselves to those poor horses. I’m advocating that the pentathletes should at very least spend a lot more time doing the jumpers training than they do (one athlete says he trains in the other events 5-6 days a week, and practices his riding maybe every other week… it’s obviously his weakest event, so how is that considered riding at an Olympic level?). The riding in this particular event is beyond shitty, is my point, and so my solution is that they stop sucking so hard.

      • hehe yeah I might be confusing it… I didn’t see any pentathlon at the olympics, but maybe it wans’nt aired in denmark…

        and I haven’t had the time to wathc all of your video yet…

        • That’s probably the problem, then! :) It was the last event of the Games I think and I know BBC and NBC covered it at least a little. There’s a really nice short promo video that kind of gives you an idea of what this particular sport is on youtube… it doesn’t seem to have regional restrictions so hopefully you can watch it from Denmark!

          • hmm yeah I can watch it… that’s insane, I mean if they want to run of stab each other with swords, fine, but who lets them have their horse ??? Now I’m glad i didn’t see that part of the olympics, I was pissed off enough as it were already ;)

            • Yeah, it’s not the greatest. :( I think it could be super cool but they’d have to really dedicate themselves to actually learning how to ride and it seems as if they really have no incentive to do that, since you can suck hard at the riding and still win a gold medal. It’s a very difficult thing to ride a course like that on a horse you don’t know but if I were them that’d just make me want to be *more* prepared. :D

              • I’d value my life too much to do something like that if I wasn’t qualified… not to mention the life of the horse…

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