Mike Rowbottom

Over the years, writing up International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) events, I’ve noticed an odd thing. The official picture accompanying reports tends to feature a line of officials in the foreground, often with the current President of the UIPM, Klaus Schormann, front and centre.

Standing behind the officials – athletes.

It is, literally, not a good image for the sport. And it is emblematic of the problems currently besetting an event dreamed into Olympic being by the man who dreamt up the modern Olympics themselves, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Many years ago there was a late-night TV show on Channel 4 called "The Word", which carried a regular feature called "The Hopefuls", wherein ever more bizarre and distasteful actions were asked of members of the public who would eventually turn to the camera and announce: "I’ll do anything to be on TV."

For Schormann the catchline is different – "I’ll do anything to keep modern pentathlon in the Olympics." His desperate willingness to persuade the ruling classes at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep faith with the five classical – if not ancient – events put together by de Coubertin has prompted him to put in place an escalating series of alterations and amendments.

To be fair to Schormann, ever since the former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch marked his card in 1993, soon after the German had taken over the UIPM leadership, he has always been running to keep up. Modern pentathlon, he was told, took too long. TV viewers. Youth. Brevity. Modernity. Life, liberty and the pursuit of sponsorship…

Between the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, pentathletes had to come to terms with two seismic changes as the running and shooting disciplines were combined into a final, alternating event – and the shooting itself became something to be done with lasers rather than air pistols.

Other ideas have bloomed since – notably the idea of creating a special modern pentathlon venue at the Olympics for a one-day competition. That bloom was swiftly trodden into the dust.

It is unsurprising that some in the sport refer to Schormann as The Tinkerman. But credit where credit is due. Modern pentathlon, strongly rumoured to be for the chop 10 years ago, is still up and shooting/running.

Front and centre - UIPM President Klaus Schormann lines up after another event. Can you spot the pentathletes? ©Getty Images
Front and centre - UIPM President Klaus Schormann lines up after another event. Can you spot the pentathletes? ©Getty Images

Indeed, one of Schormann’s strongest critics, Britain’s Sydney 2000 bronze medallist Kate Allenby, readily concedes that the laser run finale that was in place for the London 2012 Olympics, which she hugely opposed, has been a ringing success.

Now, however, almost 700 of the sport’s best athletes around the world are united – and under the new umbrella of Pentathlon United – in feeling that The Tinkerman has overreached himself in his arbitrary proposal to drop riding from the programme to be replaced by an as yet unknown alternative.

This huge change was put through by the UIPM Executive Board. No consultation. And the promise of consultation over what the replacement event would be was undermined by Schormann apparently telling a German news outlet that it would not be cycling, implying that its identity was already known and adding that it was too early to announce.

He denied this report the following day.

There are two main elements here. Firstly, does riding need to be in modern pentathlon? It has been effectively downgraded since 1994, when it was taken out of qualifying events and required only in UIPM finals.

Since then, its supporters maintain, it has been neglected. At this summer’s Tokyo 2020, the riding event produced a shaming incident in which Saint-Boy, the horse bearing the German leader of the event, Annika Schleu – and chosen, as always, by lot shortly before competition – refused to perform.

After Schleu finished in tears, her coach, Kim Raisner, was seen punching the horse. The UIPM acted with a commendable decisiveness, swiftly punishing the coach and establishing a Riding Group that produced a series of positive suggestions for improvement.

But somehow, especially after this PR disaster, riding was non grata. Was it the IOC nudging the UIPM? Hungary’s two-time Olympic gold medallist and IOC member Pál Schmitt insisted last week that it was not. What to believe?

Those who wish to see riding gone regard it as the most expensive element of the five events – fencing, swimming, riding, shooting and running – and as such, a bar to smaller, less wealthy nations establishing themselves in the sport.

Kate Allenby, Sydney 2000 bronze medallist, continues to make a strong case against the UIPM and the way it has proposed dropping riding from the event without consultation ©Pentathlon United
Kate Allenby, Sydney 2000 bronze medallist, continues to make a strong case against the UIPM and the way it has proposed dropping riding from the event without consultation ©Pentathlon United

Another argument ranged against it is that it is too open to chance, and thus unfair to competitors who are able to be self-reliant in the other events.

Those who wish to see riding retained, however, regard it as an essential, unique element of the sport, the thing that sets it firmly aside from other combinational entities such as triathlon.

Allenby is currently one of the most vocal advocates for riding to remain in the sport. And last week, in fronting the latest Pentathlon United initiative to put that into effect, she offered some personal testimony that put the charges of "unfairness" into new perspective.

"Unlike many of the UIPM Executive Board, I have actually lost an Olympic medal due to a bad ride," Allenby said. "I was in second place in the Athens Olympics when a difficult ride took me out of contention.

"So I know the pain that comes with that. The UIPM is calling this unfair. I say it is sport. It is show-jumping. It is all the highs and lows of this unique, multi-discipline sport."

Above and beyond the dispute about riding, however, rides the second element – the patent lack of transparency; the huge lack of respect for athletes who are supposed to be, Mr President, front and centre.

"None of us wants to be in this position," Allenby said. "We don’t want to see our sport the subject of court proceedings.

"We have been put in this position by the UIPM, which has mismanaged our sport for 30 years. Their attempt to secretly impose this decision on our sport has brought us to the brink of losing our place in the Olympic Games. And that is unacceptable.

"We do not dismiss the need to reform our riding discipline. Standards of competition, horse welfare and athlete safety have fallen too short for too many years. The scenes in Tokyo were terrible for our sport. But that was the culmination of months and years of neglect of the riding phase – a neglect by this current leadership.

"Riding itself is not the problem. It is modern and dynamic. All we need is to make sure our rules and regulations and standards of competition and our approach to horse welfare and athlete safety are in line with the sport we want.

Britain's Samantha Murray, pictured en route to silver at the London 2012 Olympics, has criticised the phenomenon of
Britain's Samantha Murray, pictured en route to silver at the London 2012 Olympics, has criticised the phenomenon of "ghost votes" that she believes is distorting the election process within the UIPM ©Getty Images

"We have proposals and ideas that we are prepared to discuss with UIPM and build on the recent work of their Riding Group. We are de Coubertin’s sport, created because of the Olympic Games."

Also taking part in the Pentathlon United press conference was Britain’s three-time world champion and London 2012 silver medallist Samantha Murray, who described the UIPM’s assertion that, already, more than 50 of its 128  federations had backed its plan to drop riding as being "quite laughable."

Among the five mentioned to be in favour were the Ugandan and Philippines federations.

Murray pointed to the phenomenon of what she described as "ghost votes", which allow the UIPM leadership to effect any changes they require.

"If Uganda really are aligned with the UIPM – we just don’t know," she asserted. "They are ghosts to us, we never see them, we never hear of them and yet they have this vote at a Congress which stacks up higher than the active nations. It shouldn’t be this way.

"The current UIPM President has created these inactive federations around the world. We never compete against athletes from these nations, we never see them at the Olympic Games.

"But the active federations who are passionate about the sport and represent hundreds of top athletes are shut down by the votes of the inactive federations. This is the game of politics that is at hand here."

Schormann is set to be re-elected unopposed at UIPM Congress this week for an eighth term, at the conclusion of which he will have been UIPM President for 32 years. 

He is standing front and centre once again; but how many athletes are standing behind him?