Encouraging words from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) do not mean your sport is safe in the Games, says former IOC marketing director Michael Payne during a frank address to the recent Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) congress.
“The IOC rarely says things directly – it is always couched in diplomatic language, and you have to read between the lines,” said Payne. “The IOC does its best to respect the independence of each international federation, and publicly only gives guidance, subtle hints. But privately the leadership of the IOC has been very clear – and more recently in public; riding [in pentathlon] must go.”
“I would not be surprised if behind closed doors clear messages are not also being given to the FEI,” he added.
After Paris 2024, Pentathlon is to drop its show jumping phase, which uses borrowed horses, following furor over the whipping of Saint Boy during the Tokyo ladies event. During the UIPM congress plans to include obstacle racing as a “potential” replacement were passed by 69-11 votes, in an attempt to secure inclusion at Los Angeles 2028.
“Let me be very clear: once you have been dropped from the Olympic programme, it is game over; there will be no way back – and your sport will struggle to even survive …”
While many equestrians were relieved when it was announced riding would be dropped from pentathlon, pentathletes themselves want to keep it. Their pressure group, PentUnite says they have not been consulted as widely as claimed by UIPM. Their own most recent athlete survey says 93% wish to keep it. During the congress PentUnite tweeted: “The General Assembly have voted against the will of the athletes who have desperately battled bravely to defend their sport #savepentathlon.”
Payne warned the pentathlon community against disunity. He said: “I have watched how over the last three decades your sport [pentathlon] has been repeatedly threatened with being dropped from the Olympics. You have dodged death multiple times. Some of you either cannot or refuse to understand what is at stake here today. No amount of lobbying or tinkering with the riding format will save you.
“Let me be very clear: once you have been dropped from the Olympic programme, it is game over; there will be no way back – and your sport will struggle to even survive without the Olympics.
“I knew of the split in your ranks about riding, and it was my impression that a house divided cannot stand. I have watched with dismay, frankly with utter disbelief, as certain groups try to defend their equestrian interests.”
“The IOC and LA28 need to understand where modern pentathlon and UIPM family stands on sincere, genuine change. At the moment, they don’t think you will be able to get your act together and they will just move on without modern pentathlon.”
Show jumping will remain in senior championship pentathlons until 2024. Junior pentathlons may omit riding from next year and run with the four remaining phases till obstacle racing is finally confirmed.
Last week, the FEI General Assembly approved rules for equestrian events at Paris 2024 but had to ease some of the most unpopular changes to the Tokyo format, which had been introduced to safeguard equestrian’s own future in the Olympics. The three to the team/no drop-score policy remains, but in show jumping the team competition will return to being staged before the individual. Horse and rider qualifications will be strengthened in all three disciplines, which means it could be more difficult to reach the target of 55 countries represented.
In September, IOC president Thomas Bach visited the World Eventing Championships at Pratoni del Vivaro in Italy, accompanied by FEI president Ingmar de Vos and chair of the FEI eventing committee, David O’Connor. Bach offered this comment: “These are amazing facilities to see and it is a pleasure to experience a real Olympic legacy and sustainability success story. I’m very impressed by the many measures the FEI has taken to safeguard the wellbeing and the health of the horses, and I am pleased with everything the international federation is doing to ensure the future of the sport.”