Liam Morgan

So, the process to find the replacement for riding as the fifth discipline in Olympic modern pentathlon after Paris 2024 is not as transparent as those involved might lead you to believe. 

Quelle surprise.

According to the Pentathlon United pressure group, set up in the wake of the controversial decision to axe riding from the sport, those involved in the commission tasked with selecting the replacement discipline were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent any leaks.

The first proposals for the new event were presented during the inaugural meeting of the fifth discipline working group, and the UIPM appear desperate to ensure the talks remain a closely guarded secret. How very Olympic Movement of them.

If the existence of these NDAs is true - a spokesperson for UIPM appeared to confirm it was when contacted by insidethegames today - then it would directly contradict a promise from the UIPM to involve athletes in the process.

Yes, the group itself features its fair share of athletes and Olympians, and the proposals themselves were presented by a member of the Athlete Committee, Britain’s James Cooke.

But how will the Committee be able to discuss the options with other athletes if they are legally bound not to disclose any information?

"It prevents the Athlete Committee from carrying out their role of representing and communicating with the athletes," Pentathlon United said on Twitter.

The UIPM spokesperson said: "UIPM is requesting all members of its various committees (including but not limited to the new Fifth Discipline Working Group) to sign documents, directly or indirectly, provided for in the UIPM Code of Ethics. 

"Such documents are in line with governance best practices."

The development will not come as a shock to close observers of the way the Olympic Movement operates: after all, this is an industry where transparency is promised but rarely delivered, where Federations promise to "engage" with a wide range of athletes and then ignore the vast majority’s views and opinions, and where obfuscation regularly triumphs over clarity.

The system to find the new fifth discipline for modern pentathlon on the world's grandest sporting stage is yet another example of a governing body saying one thing and doing the other.

Also, in another Olympic Movement classic, there is a whiff of a pre-determined outcome, judging from the press release sent out by the UIPM this week on the working group’s first meeting.

Not only is there the NDA suggestion, but the UIPM statement referenced a "testing timeline" for this mysterious new discipline. If there was not an idea of what the discipline might be, how could a testing roadmap even be discussed?

Those with skin in this particular game have long been speculating that some form of obstacle racing will take the place of riding, and there are plenty of reasons for that.

In 2017, a sort of hybrid modern pentathlon-obstacle course racing event was held in the United States.

UIPM President Klaus Schormann was effusive in his praise of the competition, describing the amalgamation of the two sports as "a logical step in the evolution" of modern pentathlon.

Schormann also gave an ill-advised and ill-timed interview to a German media outlet last year, where he appeared to confirm the fears of his disgruntled opponents - that the fifth discipline had indeed already been chosen.

The scandal in the riding section of the modern pentathlon event at Tokyo 2020 sparked the UIPM into action, but changes have long been overdue ©Getty Images
The scandal in the riding section of the modern pentathlon event at Tokyo 2020 sparked the UIPM into action, but changes have long been overdue ©Getty Images

Riding itself has been on the chopping block for more than three decades. According to a post from Ukrainian three-time Olympian and former world champion Pavel Tymoshchenko on Facebook, Joël Bouzou, a UIPM vice-president, said then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch raised the possibility of replacing it with cycling as far back as after the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

There is little doubt change is needed to modern pentathlon if it is to remain on the Olympic programme. It is believed to have finished bottom of the Tokyo 2020 league table for broadcasting figures and coverage - a result it has become accustomed to over the years.

Given the scale of the task facing the UIPM if it is to be restored to the Games programme in time for Los Angeles 2028, it is also fair to question the membership of certain individuals on the fifth discipline working group.

It is typical of a Federation in the Olympic Movement - there is a running theme here - to establish a commission to modernise the Federation and install the inevitably long-serving President to run it.

The UIPM’s working group is, of course, chaired by Schormann.

Some might suggest the beleaguered German official has not been able to change the Federation or the sport for the better in his near 30-year reign in the top job. What evidence is there to suggest it will be any different this time?

That it took a horse-punching scandal for the UIPM to finally act paints a picture of a dysfunctional organisation which is continuing to let down its athletes, and Schormann is as culpable as any.

It is little wonder there have been such vociferous calls for Schormann, re-elected in November, to resign.

The IOC Executive Board sounded a warning to the UIPM when it left modern pentathlon off the initial sports programme for Los Angeles 2028 ©IOC
The IOC Executive Board sounded a warning to the UIPM when it left modern pentathlon off the initial sports programme for Los Angeles 2028 ©IOC

Expect those to grow if modern pentathlon fails to adhere to the demands of the IOC, which has told the UIPM to "finalise its proposal for the replacement of horse riding and for the overall competition format" before its Session next year.

The UIPM has also been warned it has to "demonstrate a significant reduction in cost and complexity, and improvement across the areas of safety, accessibility, universality, appeal for youth and general public" in its proposal.

That timeframe does not give the UIPM much wriggle room. It simply has to get this right. And fast.

Athletes can be forgiven for having little faith that it will.