Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, hopes Tokyo will happen next summer, albeit without spectators. Some people in horse sport remain skeptical; hence the determination to press on with the 2021 European Championships in jumping and dressage.
But in the past month, news of three effective vaccines against Covid 19, and more on the way, has given Tokyo a literal shot in the arm. If sufficient fans receive the jab by next summer, that will surely make a stadium crowd viable at the Olympics, albeit not on the usual scale?
So I was feeling much more buoyant about the future of the Olympics when writing last week about the Paris Games 2024. The French will put on a tremendous show and the likelihood of a huge horse park audience will remind the IOC of equestrian sport’s popularity.
I am not sure now, though, that a successful Paris and the format changes adopted at Tokyo can keep equestrian safe in the Olympic movement beyond 2024 without a further drastic revamp. Last week I included the throwaway line about the reimagined, 90-minute modern pentathlon. A few days later I woke with a jolt: could a similar “blink-and-you-miss-it” solution confront equestrian within the decade? Covid lockdowns play tricks with your mind, but the modern pentathlon situation seems very real.
Modern pentathlon, like equestrian, has repeatedly fought to remain a summer Olympic sport. It no longer impresses decision-makers that both sports go back to at least 1912. The survival tactics of horse sport tend to track those of modern pentathlon by an Olympiad or three, so I really hope this latest development isn’t a portent.
First, some background: before Covid, fewer cities were bidding to stage the latest Olympic Games because of the eye-watering expense. The unveiling of the lucky host used to be a major TV event but in 2017, Paris and Los Angeles were awarded the 2024 and 2028 Games uncontested.
In addition to budgetary concerns, potential bidders for 2032 now know what happens when an Olympic year coincides with a pandemic. The IOC will also need to factor in the climate change lobby’s argument that Olympic-scale events are bad for the carbon footprint, plus demand for inclusion from cool new urban sports and requests for extra medal events from existing Olympic sports.
Originally, modern pentathlon took place over four or five days and awarded both individual and team medals. Its first Olympic concession was at Barcelona 1992, where it gave up the team event. At Atlanta 1996 all five sports were staged in a single day – fencing (one-touch épée), freestyle swimming (200m), show jumping (15 fences), pistol (now laser) shooting and cross-country running. At London 2012, modern pentathlon amalgamated the last two disciplines into the “laser-run.” This now alternates four legs of shooting followed by an 800m run – 3,200m in total. The original cross-country was a continuous 4,000km; swimming was formerly over 300m.
So modern pentathlon has already undergone more content upheaval than horse sport; equestrian’s gravest changes are the recent reduction in team sizes from four riders to three, the incongruity of parachuting in a substitute if something goes wrong, and the flipping of teams and individuals on the timetable for jumping, all effective from Tokyo. We’ve rejected (for now) vague suggestions of a three-minute dressage grand prix test. But on the plus side, aside from dropping roads-and-track and steeplechase from eventing at Athens 2004 (soon viewed favourably by riders and adopted elsewhere) and adding a second jumping round for individual eventing medals, the athletic challenge and its spread over several days each remains more or less intact.
But from 2024, something much more seismic will happen to modern pentathlon. The International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) has voluntarily distilled its once five-day event into a single 90-minute effort. What’s more, many starters won’t even get to do all five disciplines. An elimination system will pare the field down, with only 12 finalists starting the laser-run. I don’t believe any such “sudden death” approach has been mooted for the athletics decathlon or heptathlon: upholding the sanctity of your sport is okay for some but not others, I guess.
The 90 minutes includes breaks. Twenty minutes is allowed for show jumping, including warm-up of the borrowed horse. It will be followed by 15 minutes of fencing, 10 of swimming and 15 of laser-run. Typical of the PR-speak that comes out of governing bodies defending the controversial, UIPM says the format will be “broadcast-friendly,” easier for viewers to understand and have a “transformative effect” on popularity. (I still don’t know who this mythical viewer is – the person who ignores all sport for three years and 50 weeks but who, overnight, becomes addicted to taekwondo, archery and dressage during the Olympic fortnight, before just as quickly forgetting about it all until next time around?)
The UIPM website, naturally, has an article about top athletes who were happy after recent test events. They all say “change or be changed,” a term we have also heard from the FEI. But Rio 2016 silver medallist Pavlo Tymoshchenko is unhappy about the 90-minute format. His long social media post has been widely shared. He raised many questions redolent of those asked by riders, particularly the jumpers, three years ago when trying to stop equestrianism’s unpopular Olympic changes going ahead.
Was the IOC actually the initiator of such drastic reform, pondered Tymoshchenko? Were there measurable targets – the number of extra viewers, reduction in costs, increase in media coverage or confirmation that the 90-minute formula is so appealing there is already a TV agreement with Channel X? Which of the many UIPM website upgrades, live-streaming initiatives and scoring innovations of recent years worked best to increase the sport’s popularity. Any answers, anyone? Er, no….
Tymoshchenko predicted the 90-minute format will create confusion rather than remove it. Recent history showed that changes to laser-run laps and to show jumping penalties distorted the scoring balance. That may not bother the general public, he said, but it strongly affects athletes and the fundamentals and focus of their training.
The IOC wants to reduce total participants from 11,238 at Rio 2016 to under 10,500 by 2024, while admitting new, mostly “urban” sports. Skateboarding, freestyle BMX and 3v3 basketball debut at Tokyo. Parkour, another street sport involving running, jumping and climbing over obstacles, has been nominated for future Olympic Games by FIG, gymnastics’ lead body. Yesterday (December 7) it was announced that break-dancing is in for Paris.
Existing sports are asking for extra medal events. Athletics pushed for a cross-country mixed relay, canoeing for “extreme slalom,” cycling for a mixed team time trial, rowing for three new “coastal” events, handball for a beach version and table tennis for women’s as well as men’s doubles. Equestrian and modern pentathlon are among the tiny handful of sports trying NOT to appear demanding.
Given the pressure on space, it is amazing that equestrian’s allocation of 200 riders remains untouched for Paris and that can be viewed as acknowledgement of the efforts it has made to adapt. But it would be dangerous to rest on our laurels.
A bone of contention at every Games is the cost of the Olympic eventing cross-country course, used for only a few hours. All the money building it, the seeding and irrigation, the communications cabling and TV cameras would probably pay for the entire set-up for an urban sport. The ultra-modern pentathlon in 2024 is bound to draw comparisons with the unwieldiness of equestrian infrastructure. Should we be worried that the IOC might turn around and ask the FEI, “why can’t you reinvent yourselves like this?”
Hybrid jumping/eventing or arena cross-countries have evolved around the world over the past 20 years, variously as marketing exercises or entertainments for VIP hospitality guests disinclined to leave their tables. Organisers have unwittingly shown how to do “distilled eventing” to people working in short video clips, those not around long enough to appreciate the nuances.
Here in the UK the arena hybrid “eventing Grand Prix” was pioneered at Hickstead in the 1990s. It went so well the Princess Royal presented the prizes in year two. The term Express Eventing was then attached to an innovative indoor arena cross-country at Cardiff in Wales in 2008, where Oliver Townend became the first eventer to win a £100,000 first prize. Cardiff also saw the fatal injury of a much-loved horse and did not progress with the exact same format. But the “Express” term continues to be borrowed for many other such informal events, especially in the winter.
Eventing aficionados view these occasions as enjoyable distractions that know their place. “This is how the Olympics will end up,” we Brits sometimes say, although we mean it as a joke. But look at modern pentathlon 2024 and the challenges facing 21st century Olympic Games, and suddenly the possibility doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.