Geoff Berkeley

Walking through the WOSiR Drzonków training centre after watching another afternoon of pulsating obstacle racing action, two small children are carefully placing one foot in front of the other trying not to fall off a curb.

With their parents standing close by, the little pair can’t resist the chance to show off their balancing skills.

Tackling obstacles is central to playground activities for many thrill-seeking and excitable young kids.

But as this weekend’s obstacle racing test event in Poland demonstrated those feelings can be easily reignited - even for an out-of-shape 33-year-old journalist like myself.

Located on the outskirts of Zielona Góra, the WOSiR Drzonków training centre is considered the home of pentathlon in Poland.

Well stocked with horses, the centre features excellent equestrian facilities alongside venues for swimming, fencing and laser-run.

But there was a new entry to the sporting complex, and it came in the shape of a five-metre-high structure that included ropes, ladders, rings and rubber mats.

Usually the home to graylings and stallions, a stable was transformed into an indoor venue for a Ninja Warrior course.

The irony could not be lost on anyone with obstacle racing poised to replace horse riding as modern pentathlon’s fifth discipline.

While horses stood next door unaware that their days in the sport are numbered, pentathletes threw themselves from obstacle to obstacle.

The sound of galloping hooves and the odd bar hitting the floor in a show jumping event was replaced with cries from the thrilled spectators and the pounding steps of competitors as they tackled the eight obstacles.

The two disciplines are poles apart but the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) is on a journey that it hopes can retain modern pentathlon’s place on the Olympic programme - a position it has held for more than 100 years.

When asked to take on the 60-metre course, a wave of fear washed over me knowing that I had not stepped foot in a gym nor done any full-on physical activity for several months.

That sense of fear did not go away after being left gasping for air following a warm-up led by World Obstacle President Ian Adamson, but I was prepared to give it a go and gained confidence when climbing the three sonic steps.

Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for me as I needed the assistance of medical staff after landing awkwardly following a fall on the double swings.

While I managed to navigate one more obstacle that required balancing skills, it was clear that being able to carry your own body weight was key to completing the other six obstacles.

Among those included the titled ladder, globe grasper and ring toss positioned around three metres off the mat, while the single cat grab and the 4m-high warped wall also needed plenty of strength to overcome.

It was a physical test that ended up with me picking up a few bumps and bruises and I was not the only one to fail to finish the course and suffer injuries.

Obstacle racing has undergone four test events as the UIPM considers whether to confirm it as a modern pentathlon discipline ©UIPM
Obstacle racing has undergone four test events as the UIPM considers whether to confirm it as a modern pentathlon discipline ©UIPM

"Physically it was quite hard as we never do anything like this," said Hungarian pentathlete Dorottya Tatar.

"There is a lot of obstacles where you have to work with your body weight.

"In modern pentathlon we don’t have to do anything just with our body."

A move to obstacle racing could lead to a new type of athlete joining the sport but there was a willingness to master the different elements among those trying it out for the first time.

"It was amazing as this is my first attempt in the obstacle course and I think it’s great," said 19-year-old Polish pentathlete Adam Pierzchała, who won the men’s obstacle racing event on Friday (October 7).

"I prefer this to riding as we have to be in the Olympics and we have to change something.

"I think this is a good change for us.

"I think this is more enjoyable to watch on television as it’s fast and entertaining."

Adamson believes obstacle racing combines all the skills to create the "complete athlete" and can complement the other modern pentathlon disciplines.

"This well-balanced course addresses the basic requirement for any athlete which are agility, balance, hand-eye coordination, speed, strength, technique and puzzle-solving," said Adamson.

"For the first time at the obstacles, they did very fast times.

"They are very good athletes in multiple disciplines so they have got the basic skills to do arguably any sport.

"A learning curve for a pentathletes is extremely fast so after a 30-minute explanation and 30 minutes of training, they got the techniques and some of them were very, very quick."

UIPM President Klaus Schormann is facing criticism over the organisation's decision to axe horse riding ©UIPM
UIPM President Klaus Schormann is facing criticism over the organisation's decision to axe horse riding ©UIPM

The UIPM is facing a battle to win over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure modern pentathlon features at Los Angeles 2028 after it was left off the initial list.

Among the requests outlined by IOC President Thomas Bach was for the UIPM to "demonstrate a significant reduction in cost and complexity" of modern pentathlon competitions.

According to UIPM secretary general Shiny Fang, the facilities needed to set up a World Cup event for the horse riding leg "easily" exceed $100,000 (£90,000/€102,000) in rental costs.

In contrast, Fang said the price of renting equipment for a obstacle course racing competition could be as little as $5,000 (£4,500/€5,100) with a Ninja Warrior-style event reaching as high as $40,000 (£36,000/€42,000).

"For the companies that provide us [with obstacle racing equipment], it is not very complicated to set up," said Fang.

"There is a big market and so many providers exist, so we can have long-term relationships and can contact some factory to directly produce for everyone."

UIPM President Klaus Schormann has said he is "convinced" modern pentathlon will make the cut for Los Angeles 2028 with obstacle racing viewed as the future fifth discipline for the sport.

But protests persist over the decision to ditch riding in the wake of the horse abuse scandal at Tokyo 2020.

Pressure group Pentathlon United has posted several pictures in the past 24 hours of young pentathletes calling for the equestrian element to remain beyond Paris 2024.

Pentathletes and officials from the Hungarian, Polish and Czech teams are photographed standing at the top of the podium at the UIPM Pentathlon Junior World Championships in Zielona Góra holding up a Pentathlon United banner with the message "Keep riding and change the rules".

Pentathlon United also reported the results of a survey in July that revealed that 92 per cent of respondents wanted to keep riding, but UIPM Athletes' Committee chair Yasser Hefny said he had been encouraged by the number of positive comments he had received during the obstacle racing test events.

"The majority is always silent because they are focused on training and on tasks in the off-season and preparation phases," said Hefny.

"If they are not speaking, they don’t have a problem with the change.

"We need to secure the future for the younger generation to enjoy."

Those little children balancing on the curb in Zielona Góra could be a new generation of obstacle-racing pentathletes.

But the UIPM must find a way of appeasing disgruntled pentathletes to ensure it does not lose those that currently live and breathe the sport.