It’s been perhaps the most challenging couple of years for modern pentathletes in their sport’s storied history.
A sport which made its Olympic debut in Stockholm 1912, and was invented by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Modern pentathlon, with some minor modifications, has been a staple of the Summer Olympics for over a century. However, after the Tokyo 2020 Games their Olympic future looked uncertain at best.
Critics called the sport elitist, boring and old-fashioned. After a German coach punched a horse during the Tokyo 2020 Games for not executing a jump, the sport had an unwanted spotlight thrust upon it.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach laid down the law. Replace the equestrian format with something more accessible to a wider audience of people, or risk being removed from the Olympic Program starting with LA28.
To the federation’s credit, they listened to the IOC and went about making wholesale changes to their beloved sport. After an intensive evaluation, equestrian was replaced with obstacle. The IOC recently reinstated modern pentathlon back onto the LA28 Program.
Around the Rings recently spoke with modern pentathlon Olympians Jamie Cooke and Elena Micheli to get their thoughts on the challenges of learning a whole new discipline and what they think will happen in LA28.
ATR: What were your thoughts upon hearing modern pentathlon was back in the LA28 Olympic Program?
Cooke: It’s a massive amount of relief, but also a massive amount of excitement to be able to continue the sport going forward and showcase our sport. It’s been a long time waiting.
Micheli: Our sport can now continue to grow our audience, and people can still get in touch with it. To keep being an Olympic sport is what we need to survive. This allows us to continue the founder’s legacy.
ATR: Both of you grew up with equestrian as a part of the sport. How has the transition been to learning and accepting obstacle as the new discipline?
Micheli: For me, I haven’t actually tried obstacle. It’s a completely different discipline from equestrian. It’s difficult but I think it will be very entertaining for a lot of people. It’s a whole new way of training.
Cooke: We have this opportunity to grow and showcase this sport. We understand there will always be a little bit of hurt and pain with change. Change is inevitable and it’s also a painful process. We had this mandate by the IOC and we came to the conclusion obstacle would be the right fit for the sport. It still challenges athletes. The modern pentathlete is the most complete athlete at the Games. You’ve got the physical elements, the tactful and skillful elements as well. Obstacle now challenges you in all those aspects. This is a massive opportunity to show the change is massive but also worth it.
ATR: If the incident in Tokyo 2020 with the German coach punching the horse had not happened, would we be having this conversation about the sport needing to change in order to ensure Olympic survival?
Cooke: If we really do look at our sport, we needed that change. I think it probably expedited the process and really highlighted issues within our sport. It was a regrettable action and unfortunate. The Olympics are redefining the landscape and moving towards more urban sports like climbing and skateboarding. We don’t want to miss out on that. We’ve been around for over 100 years. We need to innovate and change and be at the forefront of the next 100 years of Olympic Games. We have five very unique and very diverse disciplines, but they are the disciplines that can change and evolve and be at the forefront of the Olympic Movement.
Micheli: We started with a competition that was spread over five days, now it’s just one day within two hours. We’ve had many changes through the years. We expected this decision from the IOC.
ATR: One of the IOC’s main issues with equestrian was the cost and the availability of quality horses to athletes across the globe. Agree or disagree?
Cooke: We do face a lot of challenges having five different sports within modern pentathlon. We know the equestrian side of the sport is very affluent and well-funded side of it. We’re lucky to have had that opportunity. That chapter will end and this new chapter is ahead of us. Obstacle will open up those doors to more athletes and pull down those barriers. Hopefully we will see the sport grow. We need to see thriving competitions with new athletes and new federations, along with existing federations that have been struggling. It will take time and effort from all federations to make this transition work.
ATR: Did the struggles of boxing and weightlifting to regain their Olympic credibility help or hinder your federation, the UIPM, to help your image with the IOC?
Cooke: The IOC provided us a very clear roadmap to be included in LA28 and we went through the list and worked hard to provide solutions. We can only focus on our sport and be the best we can be. As we see the sport grow and more eyeballs on it, our athletes will benefit and become superstars because they deserve it. We had our problems and we’ve overcome them.
ATR: What do you anticipate the experience will be for modern pentathlon in LA28?
Micheli: I think you will see more people practicing the sport. I can get my son, my daughter involved in this new format because they want to practice this. I can see in Italy where the following is changing right now.
Cooke: We know it will be an amazing show. We know what the American public is like with sports and how they get behind everything. If we can showcase our new discipline and get the success we believe we will do. We think it will capture the American audience and the worldwide Olympic audience. It’s new and that’s what we need. This is the opportunity we have to play in the big leagues of Olympic sports.