Australian three-time Olympic pentathlete Alex Watson has challenged the sport’s international president in a move that is sure to have widespread reverberations as modern pentathlon faces an uncertain future.
- Modern pentathlon’s governing body moved quickly to ditch show jumping as a discipline in the sport after the Tokyo Olympics
- It came after animal cruelty concerns were raised when a horse was repeatedly whipped by a rider and hit by a coach
- Australian Olympic pentathlete Alex Watson criticises governing body’s lack of consultation about its Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course plan
There are claims of secrecy, cover-ups and keeping the sport’s most-credentialed athletes in the dark regarding the axing of show jumping, to be replaced by Ninja Warrior-style obstacle racing, an event that has widespread television popularity.
The international governing body — UIPM — has been presided over by Germany’s Klaus Schormann for the past 30 years, with the sport now fighting for survival. It is not included on the program for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Some of the sport’s biggest names are fighting the obstacle racing switch and have suggested they have no confidence in Schormann’s leadership.
They have asked Watson to challenge for the highest office.
Speaking to The Ticket exclusively from London ahead of the announcement, Watson accuses the governing body of “failings” in running the sport.
Why Ninja Warrior instead of show jumping?
The switch was fast-tracked after a German coach was sent home from the Tokyo Olympics for punching a horse after it refused to jump, costing rider Annika Schleu a shot at a medal.
Unlike in many other equestrian or horse racing events — where jockeys often ride the same horse multiple times — in the show jumping discipline of the modern pentathlon, riders are assigned a mount, with horses often ridden multiple times by different athletes during the event.
It was not the only reason the UIPM sought change, but is believed to have been the catalyst for moving quickly — the announcement came a week after the end of the pentathlon program in Tokyo.
A day after the UIPM announced its desire to remove show jumping from the sport, Modern Pentathlon Australia (MPA) said it “strongly supports the swift-but-considered action”.
However, three months later, after “strong feedback from current and former members”, MPA said it now opposed the removal of the discipline.
Watson and his supporters say they were not involved in discussions that will substantially change the only sport specifically designed for the Olympic Games.
“The athletes have not been taken into the debate. They haven’t been told the truth by the international federation and, as it turns out, the fit with obstacle racing is not something that was brought up after Tokyo,” Watson said.
“It’s actually been a business arrangement the UIPM has been working on since 2016 in secret.
“The reason we know is that we have obtained a copy of a draft contract dated April 2016, which was going to be signed by the International Obstacle Racing and the UIPM.”
Since the Tokyo Olympics, the UIPM has staged a series of test events with obstacle racing alongside the pentathlon’s other disciplines: running, shooting, swimming and fencing.
The governing body said athletes support the change because it will “transform” and “supercharge” the sport, which Watson contests.
According to a UIPM survey there was 88 per cent support of the new discipline from athletes who competed in the test events, who were mostly in junior and youth categories.
At odds with that finding is a survey by independent athlete representative body Pentathlon United, which found more than 90 per cent of athletes were unhappy with the decision to drop riding.
Watson said the leaders of the sport, including Schormann, “would like everyone to believe that the athletes are very excited about losing riding and introducing obstacle racing”, but he said that was not the biggest concern of most pentathletes.
“They want better management of the sport, and they want the sport better promoted and better governed,” he said.
Politics, fear and reprisals
In taking on the UIPM, Watson knows he also has to manage powerful politics that stretch all the way from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The first vice-president of the UIPM, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, is also vice-president of the IOC and rumoured to be among the most-likely candidates to become the next Olympic president.
“He is very senior, and he is a very important figure and member of the executive board,” Watson said.
“What we understand about his position is that he wasn’t one of the key people pushing obstacle racing and he has been quoted himself as saying that this is a gamble, in his own words ‘a big gamble’, by the UIPM.
“My position on this is we would very much like to have his involvement in the sport going forward, but we also believe that we need to examine how the sport is managed.”
Watson will need the support of a majority of national federations, such as Modern Pentathlon Australia, if he is to succeed at the international congress held online in mid-November.
“I’ve spoken to many of the national federation executives’ presidents. At the moment, the majority of active federations support the retention of riding, but they’re all frightened by the UIPM,” Watson said.
“Some of them have been intimidated and threatened about sanctions or punishment if they don’t toe the UIPM line, and this goes to the whole governance issue and the way the sport is being conducted.
“We have concrete evidence of the UIPM threatening to take international events away from federations if they don’t follow the UIPM line.”
Minutes from a UIPM executive board meeting in June included notes that said local organising committees of sanctioned pentathlon events “must be on UIPM side during the 2022-23 seasons”.
“If the event hosting [national federation] is against UIPM, the competition organisation needs to be taken away from them,” the minutes read.
The minutes also said the UIPM should ask the sport’s governing in Great Britain “to present a clear public statement about the organisation and support for the 2023 UIPM Pentathlon World Championships”, which are being held in Bath next August.
Will the 109-year-old sport survive beyond Paris 2024?
Current IOC president Thomas Bach has a philosophy of “change or be changed”, supporting the introduction of modern sports such as surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding in Tokyo and break-dancing, which is to make its debut in Paris.
Critics have long argued that modern pentathlon is not modern enough for today’s sports consumers, with sports having to adapt to more broadcast-friendly programs.
However, a letter signed by dozens of modern pentathlon Olympic medallists was sent to the IOC president asking for intervention.
“That [letter] asked for the IOC to intervene and to make the UIPM accountable and open and transparent about the whole process because, as I’ve said, they put out that they were doing an open consultation considering a large number of potential fifth disciplines but, as we know now, the decision had already been made behind closed doors,” Watson said.
“The whole consultation process was really just a sham, and this is why the athletes have lost all faith and trust in the leadership of the sport.
“[In response] they have made it clear they want the athletes brought into the process and that the athletes must be listened to. And we’ve made representations to the IOC … that that just isn’t happening and that we would like the IOC to monitor the situation.
“The IOC has told the UIPM that [it is] waiting for their proposals on the replacement of riding but the UIPM had put out originally that the IOC had ‘insisted’ on the removal of riding and wouldn’t consider any future for the sport with riding, but that is not correct.
“The IOC [has] never demanded the removal of riding. [It has] asked the UIPM to resolve the problem and come forward with a proposal that is going to meet the IOC criteria for inclusion into the Games.”
The challenge for modern pentathlon, he said, was not only to remain relevant but to grow its market, improve its marketing and promotion, reduce costs while at the same time increasing revenue: It is a challenge many Olympic sports face.
Watson was the competition manager for modern pentathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, with further experience in staging and marketing successful competitions.
His list of supporters who fear their sport “will die” without change at the top includes reigning Olympic and world champion Joe Choong of Great Britain, and two pentathletes described as the “Federer and Serena of the sport”, Hungary’s Laszlo Fabian and Eva Fjellerup from Denmark.