Joe Choong

My name is Joe Choong. I competed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in modern pentathlon, and over the last few months I’ve been busy enjoying the benefits of coming home with a gold medal. 

From brushing shoulders with Daniel Craig at the James Bond premier, to filming a BBC Children in Need sketch with other (much more famous than me) Olympians, I’ve had some incredible experiences that I would never have dreamt of a few years ago. However, by far the most unexpected thing that’s happened to me since the Games occurred around three weeks ago was the discovery that our international governing body, the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), voted, in secret, to rip apart my sport - they voted unanimously to remove horse riding as one of the five disciplines of our sport, and replace it with something else.

The fact that neither myself, nor anyone else, even knew that this discussion was happening, and that we all found out through an insidethegames news article, made the revelation all the more upsetting. I’m very aware that pentathlon is a rather niche sport - for those of you who don’t know our sport was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, at the same time as he created the modern Olympic Movement. The five events of our sport were based on the skills an elite cavalry soldier might need trying to deliver a message in battle - we ride into battle on our horse, fight to survive with our sword and pistol (fencing and shooting), then we have to swim across a river to escape, before running off to deliver the message on the other side.

Safe to say, it's a sport with a great history and tradition, but it's also one of the most exciting sports to be involved in, with so many different physical and mental attributes needed to perform well over each event. Removing the horse riding completely changes that for me - for one, without our tradition, we go from calling ourselves "the original Olympic sport" to just a weird mix of 5 different events. And secondly, one of the compelling parts of the sport is that it tests such a diverse range of sporting prowess that no other sport comes close to matching - no other sport requires an athlete to push their physical limits in the running and swimming, while at the same time needing the mental ability to outsmart their opponent in fencing, or the state of calm required to instantly switch between charging around a cross country run to focusing on hitting five tiny targets on a shooting range. 

Bonding quickly with your horse is a skill crucial to an athletes' success, writes Joe Choong ©Getty Images
Bonding quickly with your horse is a skill crucial to an athletes' success, writes Joe Choong ©Getty Images

Above all of these skills, the most different is the skill of being able to bond with your horse. You only get 20 minutes to mount up, and build the trust and teamwork you both need to complete a 1.20 metres show jumping course. It is one of the most rewarding parts of the sport and, I don’t know if you can tell, but I am angry the UIPM thinks they can make this decision without even considering the thoughts of us athletes, or the National Federations.

In a poll by the UIPM Athletes Committee, 75.8 per cent of pentathletes who responded voted that they would not want pentathlon to be in the Olympics with a replacement sport for riding. Despite this, and despite over 800 athletes adding their names to a letter asking for the UIPM to change their mind, the UIPM have forced through their decision. Even more grating is that the UIPM Athletes Committee representative even voted in favour of this change, without asking a single athlete. Since then, even with many athletes being told that if they speak out they will lose funding, hundreds of athletes have sent the athlete representative letters stating that we want to keep the riding. And yet she has still refused to confirm how she will vote at the upcoming election.

When asked why they are so stubborn in forcing through these changes, Board members have quoted various, and continuously changing, justifications. They have claimed that they were pressured into this decision from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they have claimed that riding limits participation, and they have claimed that they need to change the sport to make it more exciting for the future, and more exciting for young athletes currently coming through the youth pathways.

My favourite justification for their decision, during a Zoom meeting, was when an athlete asked the American delegates why they thought it was acceptable to make the decision without consulting the athletes. A Board member, who is over 60, replied that he used to be an athlete, and therefore he thought his opinion spoke for the athletes.

The modern pentathlon format has already undergone a major change for the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Getty Images
The modern pentathlon format has already undergone a major change for the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Getty Images

I think this exemplifies the attitude the UIPM have towards members and participants of their sport. When the current President has been in his role longer than I have been alive (I’m 26), and has built his "echo chamber" of supporters around him, then it no longer becomes a democracy. One Board member will have an idea, all the others support this idea, and then therefore it must be a good idea, because it has all the support… 

I’ll give one example - the new 90-minute format for pentathlon coming into effect as of 2022. The idea was that the current 4/5-hour format was not exciting, and took too long. So, the UIPM proposed this change, and asked some athletes to take part in a few test events. The positive feedback from these competitions (to paraphrase slightly) was that "the winners enjoyed winning". What a shocking revelation… There was also a 1-5 scale of what all the competitors thought, and you might have assumed that in a normal voting system 3 would mean "average", but no. In fact, they decided in their wisdom that a 2 meant average and anything above that was great. I have to say, as a maths graduate who enjoys statistics, that meeting was truly mind-boggling.

Anyway, that brings me back to the idea to replace horse riding in our sport. The first reason we heard was that they were told if they propose pentathlon with riding to the IOC for the Los Angeles 2028 Games that we would not be allowed in. Several IOC members have since stated publicly that this isn’t true - in their own words, it isn’t the IOC’s place to dictate the internal composition of a sport. Nonetheless, the resulting plan was to propose a pentathlon of four sports and a question mark for the 2028 Games. Hardly a well-planned proposal, and one I’m not sure the IOC would be impressed by. If it were up to me, I would take my chances with a well-reformed riding format.

Modern pentathlon has evolved over the years, with the laser-run combining shooting and cross country ©Getty Images
Modern pentathlon has evolved over the years, with the laser-run combining shooting and cross country ©Getty Images

At the World Equestrian Games in 2014, there were 500,000 spectators across the Championships. Safe to say in pentathlon we don’t get anywhere close to that number. Seeing that figure, and then hearing the UIPM say that horse riding is an inaccessible sport... things just don’t add up. There have been athlete protests over riding since at least 2004, including a sit-down protest in Mexico in 2014, where the athletes refused to compete over the welfare of the horses. One of my friends was at this competition and said that the horse she was given was so exhausted and malnourished that it just lay down before she even had a chance to mount up! No athletes think of the horses as a tool, but by competing within the laws of the competition we become a product of these rules. One of the most ludicrous rules is that after a fall, the athlete must get back on the horse as quickly as possible to avoid time penalties - there is no allowance for health or veterinary checks which is just awful.

In response to some of these rules, my performance director told me National Federations have been proposing ideas and updates to the riding event every year since 2014. After every instance we, as a sport, have been promised that the problems would be solved, but nothing has ever changed. The President has had 28 years to improve the sport, so now saying the only way forward is to remove riding feels like a last-ditch attempt to forget his own negligence, and a refusal to take responsibility for the crisis he has led us into.

We are aware of the problems within our sport. They were never more obvious than after the events of Tokyo, but as a sport, we all get painted with the same brush. I’ve been told to "stop torturing horses or die", and I know Annika Schleu, the German girl, received far worse. The funny thing is I agree with a lot of the hate-mail I receive, but it is hard to portray my own feelings to the public when the public opinion of everyone in the sport is based off one viral video from Tokyo and a particular horse called Saint Boy. I know all about the problems, and I am shouting as loud as I can to get them changed. I just don’t think the current leadership (remember, 28 years in office) have egos that are willing to listen, or the ability to solve them. They need to go, and the way to solve the problems isn’t to remove them, but to face up to them and discuss them, together, to save pentathlon, and save the horses.

Thanks for reading up until this point, and apologies that this isn’t quite as sarcastic and light-hearted as I normally would be. Having spent so long trying to champion the athlete voice over the last few weeks, it feels as though I could write forever on this topic. If I were in charge, which I definitely don’t want to be, I would welcome communications with riding authorities like the International Equestrian Federation, who I know are interested in helping, and discuss how to change the current riding format to put horse and athlete welfare at the forefront of the changes. I don’t think the riding format is unfair, inaccessible or has to have any of the problems the UIPM has told us it has. It desperately needs attention, but I don’t think that by approaching it with an open mind it will be a tough fix. Public opinion is definitely against us, but I just see that as a challenge to prove everyone wrong. Pentathlon is a great sport, with great athletes. We all love horses, and now we just need leadership to show the world how great we can really be.