This article was produced by SportBusiness International working in association with UIPM, the modern pentathlon world governing body
IN MANY RESPECTS, modern pentathlon might be considered the ultimate Olympic sport.
Created by the father of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, to replicate and update a multi-themed event of the ancient Olympics designed to test the skills required by warriors of the day, Modern Pentathlon was originally conceived as a test of the skills a cavalry soldier would require if trapped behind enemy lines.
Its five disciplines – fencing, swimming, horse riding, running and shooting – are as intense a test of athleticism, endurance, strategy and adaptability as you will find anywhere on the Olympic programme, but the sport has often been maligned by detractors who question its relevance in the 21st century.
In fact, its very place on the Olympic programme has been under significant threat over the decades, provoking an innovative response from its governing body, the UIPM (Union International de Pentathlon Moderne), to bring the sport in line with the realities and demands of the modern day.
Now, as the countdown to Rio 2016 continues apace, modern pentathletes from around the world are looking forward to battling for gold, safe in the knowledge that their sport is in good hands and a good place. As so often happens, a sport often considered to be old-fashioned and conservative from the outside has proved a willingness to adapt, adopt and embrace change to make it more accessible, less expensive to pursue, easier for a wider public to understand and, consequently, more media friendly.
Much of the credit for the changes in the sport can be attributed to the leadership of UIPM president Klaus Schormann who has been in office since 1993, overseeing the most intensive period of development since the sport made its Olympic debut back in 1912.
Speaking just after a successful World Championship, which took place in Moscow from May 22-29, he talked excitedly about a sport in the best shape ever.
“The World Championships were the best for years. They were greatly complimented and attracted a good attendance and media interest. That’s very important for our sport,” he said.
“Over the years since I was elected the sport has changed completely. For example, before 1996 each of the five events was held over a day. Now all five are contested in a single day, that makes it more manageable and easier to schedule and for the media to cover.
“This is now a sport where men and women – who competed in the Olympic Games for the first time in 2000 – are truly equal. The format of each of the events is the same for both genders at every (age) level and the prize money is also equal,” he said.
While the president said that his original challenge to remain one of the core sports on the Olympic Games programme remains a key issue, he is proud of the way his sport is adapting to changing circumstances and creating new opportunities to embed itself deeper in the culture of the Olympic Games. And according to Schormann, that means not being afraid to change.
One of the areas in which the sport has reinvented itself is in its shooting and running disciplines. Once separate, day-long events, they have now been combined so that athletes run a series of 800-metre laps, each preceded by firing at five targets.
“The change in shooting to a combined event is very important,” Schormann explained.
“For the first Youth Olympic games in Singapore we introduced laser pistols. This was a big step forward. They were then used at London 2012 as part of the first combined event in the Olympic Games.
“The importance is that laser shooting opens the door to a young generation and solves some other problems. Shooting has always been an issue as there are matters which have to be cleared by police and, of course, traditional shooting limits the number and type of places where we can hold competitions. Now we can take the sport to more places and make it more accessible.”
Schormann said that while steps have been taken to make the sport easier in certain respects, that does not mean it is less competitive or challenging for the athletes. And, he said, some of the key changes to the sport have been made after taking heed of the views of the younger generation in whose hands the future of the sport inevitably lies.
“We listened to young people before deciding to change the riding event from cross country to show jumping and before combining the shooting and running event back in 2008,” he explained.
“We always test things with young people and they have helped us greatly to change our sport. When looking to the future it is important to build a pyramid from a good strong base.”
The introduction of the Bonus Fencing Round has also helped change the nature of competition.
“Over the years, people from TV kept telling us that it was boring so we developed an idea in which we have an additional fencing round after the traditional round robin,” he added. “The athletes are ranked from one to 36 and compete against each other to top up their scores on a single piste, ensuring maximum spectator and media attention.
“The bonus round enables each of the winners gets a one second bonus and allows us to present all the athletes to the audience in just 50 minutes. The athletes love it and it creates great focus and excitement. It is a new way of presenting our athletes and our sport and I am delighted it will be at Rio 2016.”
Elsewhere the UIPM has been active in changing staging requirements for the sport. Although the events in Rio will take place in three separate but adjacent facilities, the use of a temporary pool at the 2020 Games in Tokyo will allow all of the events to be held in a single venue.
“This is an advantage for the spectators of course but it also helps Olympic Broadcast Services because it will reduce production costs,” said Schormann, who is eager to emphasise that his concerns go beyond the organisation and presentation of the sport at elite level.
“We are very focused on young people and education is important to us,” he said.
“At the Youth A World Championships we ensure there is time in the schedule to run an educational programme for the competitors. The scope ranges from sessions on key issues such as nutrition and doping but also includes visits to museums and other cultural actives. We see this as very important to the overall development of our athletes.
“We are establishing something for successive generations here. Running the UIPM is like running a good company. You can never sit back and think about what you have achieved and must always be looking to improve and develop new products
“What we have is a high performance sport for all which focuses respect for the competitors, the environment and, of course, for horses.
“It can be played by all religious groups and both genders and we are seeing growth right around the world. We have world class athletes from Egypt and new national federations in places including Qatar and Afghanistan.
“It really is a sport for everybody. People may look in and imagine it must be expensive but you don’t have to buy a horse to compete. Horses are provided by the organisers and riders are allocated a different horse for each event.”
In its efforts to broaden its appeal and cut the costs of staging events, Schormann said that the sport has won the respect of the International Olympic Committee, not least because of its focus on complying with its Agenda 2020 vision.
The UIPM is also responsible for a number of variants of the sport, each combining a number of the five sports that make up modern pentathlon.
Its schools Biathle programme – a competition involving a run-swim-run sequence – has proved particularly popular and is seen as a potential gateway to modern pentathlon itself. The UIPM also works with related governing bodies, such as the Pony Club in the UK, to create a focus for its sport.
“It is a great sport for young people as it helps them to learn to plan their training and their social lives. You have to plan for every day and every week and that is a great life lesson,” Schormann said.
And so modern pentathlon’s development continues. While the focus may be on Rio right now, Schormann and his team will not stop looking for ways to develop. He is already excited about the planned introduction of wireless connectivity to register scores in fencing from 2017.
“It is important because it will have an impact by broadening the locations where we can take the sport and underlines our focus on using technology and reducing costs.”
Thoroughly modern indeed.
To continue reading the Modern pentathlon focus, please click the links below:
Event overview – Key issues around the World Championships
On top of the sport – A detailed look Lena Schöneborn, one of modern pentathlon’s stars
Focusing on the future – Modern pentathlon's digital ecosystem