Kate Allenby

Athletes are at the heart of the Olympic Movement, their voice should be listened to and respected, their opinions should matter. Without the athletes, there is no sport.

These aren’t my words but the words of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - unfortunately, as we’ve seen too often, those who run and administer sport are very good at talking but not really believing, saying but never actually doing.

And no one represents that world view better than what is unfolding in a sport that changed my life - modern pentathlon.

Their blatant disregard for the opinions and views of athletes - including both defending Olympic champions - as they've bulldozed through changes that few understand and even fewer want, tells its own story.

And it breaks my heart.

Breaks my heart as an Olympian and a modern pentathlete. Breaks my heart as a coach, for those I wished more than anything would get the chance to follow my pathway.

For more than two decades, I’ve stood up for the rights of athletes. In the nineties I campaigned with others for the inclusion of women in the Olympic Games. I did it in 2002 when the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) were testing new formats that would risk harm to both horses and athletes.

I was a member of the UIPM Athletes Commission from 2004-2008, I was the inaugural chair of the British Athletes Commission and I sat on the BOA Athletes Commission in the run-up to London 2012. The welfare and well-being of athletes is at the heart of everything I believe in.

When my term limit expired with the UIPM Athletes Commission, I threw my arms up in exasperation and walked away never wanting to get involved with the UIPM politics again because when you step inside the wheel, you realise how broken it is.

Klaus Schormann and World Pentathlon have spent the last three decades tinkering with the sport. Those changes were justified as necessary to maintain our place in the Olympic Games. 

They’ve never been interested in the product, they’ve never been interested in putting the athletes front and centre - despite their words to the contrary.

The format used to be held over five days, in 1996 it was changed to one day, to strong reviews, the leader accruing points that gave them a timed head start in the final run.

Stephanie Cook, left, and compatriot Kate Allenby, won gold and bronze medals for Britain in women's modern pentathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Stephanie Cook, left, and compatriot Kate Allenby, won gold and bronze medals for Britain in women's modern pentathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

In London, further changes were made, in 2012 athletes combined the run and shoot, similar to biathlon, a winter sport with huge appeal.

In Rio they introduced the "fencing ranking round", which only confused things more.

And in Paris it will be all change again - a fast and furious 90-minute format will see athletes complete all five sports in a series of heats and finals.

Confused? Imagine being an athlete, training in sport that changes its mind this often, reinventing itself every Olympic cycle to the confusion of all concerned, especially those whose interest it claims, is most important.

All these changes have amounted to nought. Sadly, they have not grown the sport, they have not increased TV viewers, they have not found new audiences online (something vital to the International Olympic Committee) and we’ve now lost our place in the Olympic Games.

Instead of looking at themselves and their own management of the sport, the UIPM lazily pointed the finger at riding. They say the root of their problems are that horses prevent participation however, this ignores the inconvenient truth, that the wider equestrian sports of dressage, eventing and showjumping remain safe in the Olympics.

Equestrian sport has grown participation, prize money, online engagement and spectator numbers. This weekend a quarter of a million people will descend on the Badminton estate for their famous three-day event.

While UIPM claim that modern pentathlon can only survive if it only takes an hour to complete, eventing proudly takes place over three days.

The UIPM’s decision to drop show jumping, not only changes the sport fundamentally, it destroys it. It brings an end to the sport that de Coubertin believed would produce the "complete athlete." It will no longer be modern pentathlon, it will be a new sport.

As it stands today, modern pentathlon’s Olympic journey comes to an end in Paris. Not because of riding but because the UIPM has failed over decades to manage, showcase and market the sport.

If the UIPM think that simply swapping showjumping for obstacle racing and amplifying some sound will see the sport re-admitted for Los Angeles 2028, they are truly blind to the challenge.

It was the athletes who warned the UIPM that simply removing riding and going to the IOC, in December 2021, with only four sports would result in exclusion from the Games. We said they would have been more likely to succeed if they had presented a bold, imaginative reformed equestrian phase. But they ignored the athletes and pressed on anyway. Look what happened.

The riding element of modern pentathlon was dropped from the sport following the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images
The riding element of modern pentathlon was dropped from the sport following the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images

And what has changed in the intervening months? The 90-minute format was supposed to be the saviour. So far it is proving controversial and confusing.

Now they plan to introduce an entirely new discipline, in June and expect the athletes to master it to Olympic standard? By 2028? What about the consideration of athlete safety and well-being in making these radical changes? Who is considering that in this?

How does anyone in the UIPM or the sport’s National Federations believe it is remotely possible to do this, while growing global participation, increasing ticket sales, media, sponsorship, reducing costs and complexity, all by May 2023, when the IOC will make its decision on re-inclusion to LA28.

Schormann will tell you there was no option but to make sweeping and seismic changes to the sport. But, to the athletes, the UIPM’s behaviour since the Tokyo 2020 Olympics feels like this is nothing more than a cover story for those who have been plotting and planning for years to get their way.

There are many things you can do to make modern pentathlon more marketable. But, respectfully, that requires an administrator that hasn’t been in place for 30 years and overseen this current disaster - a living, breathing example of the need for term limits. And a leadership whose refusal to step aside undoes any good they have achieved.

What we need is a UIPM that listens to its athletes and respects their views - and those views say, overwhelmingly, we must retain riding.

We also need a leadership that is credible with the Olympic movement.

Pentathlon United was formed by group of athletes who were angry and frustrated by the UIPM’s arrogant attitude towards athletes. This is not a fight we wanted.

However, a survey of 310 athletes - 168 of them active - showed more than 95 per cent were unhappy with the way the change was being made, nearly eight in ten said they would leave the sport if showjumping was removed, including Joe Choong, the defending men's Olympic champion.

In contrast the UIPM only held a single meeting with athletes. Just 26 participants from 22 countries were invited, not all were available. Terms of reference were limited to athletes submitting ideas for new sports and there was no feedback, or discussion on proposals being debated by the UIPM’s Fifth Sport Working Group.

So much for transparency.

All sports have to keep evolving to stay competitive in the battle for viewers, sponsors and relevance. But what does it mean to modernise?

Does it mean casting out your history and heritage? What other sports have done that and survived? Would cricket abandon the test match or golf decide to only play nine holes or eventing to remove dressage? No.

They’ve worked with their players and athletes to introduce new formats, competitions and innovations that have challenged their athletes to reach new heights of skill. They have found new ways to present their sport on television, on social channels etc. 

But they have kept their product, recognisable for what they have always been, why athletes play it in the first place and why spectators watch it.

"It is only because of the athletes themselves if they were not successful in some parts of the competition," said Schormann after what unfolded in Tokyo. What International Federation President treats athletes like that? Where is his apology for his role in this whole sorry mess?

Is it really any surprise that 90 per cent of athletes, according to a Pentathlon United survey published in May, believe the current leadership of our sport is not capable of setting a vision for the sport?

The Pentathlon United community is an incredible community. To be a pentathlete you need to be creative, innovative and determined - however else can you maximise your potential in five different sports in five different training venues with five different coaches.

They have gone on into such varied but amazing high achieving careers - and when motivated have come together in the united bond created together through sport. They are inspiring, bright, clever, creative individuals.

Most of all we are an enormous united team.