Modern pentathlon is to trial a radical new 45-minute format which will be “like James Bond meets the Krypton Factor” as part of plans to transform the event after discarding show jumping in favor of obstacle racing, the Guardian can reveal.
The proposal, which would involve minimal breaks between a fencing element followed by swimming, obstacle racing and laser gun events, is designed to tap into the US market and give the sport a far bigger presence on the global stage.
Among the ideas also being discussed is showing athletes’ heartbeats as they race, amplifying the noise of the weapons during fencing, and inviting Hollywood to help transform the way the sport is broadcast.
Joël Bouzou, the vice-president of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, the sport’s governing body, promised the new format and introduction of obstacle racing would be “exciting and successful.”
“With obstacle racing there are moments when you have to jump, hang, and have to choose options – which means you have to think and there is a tactical element,” he said. “We want to integrate all of this and find the complete athlete.” When it was suggested to Bouzou it sounded like a cross between James Bond and the Krypton Factor, he replied: “Exactly.”
Bouzou also defended the controversial decision to drop show jumping, following a poll by Pentathlon United which found 95% of athletes were unhappy with the way the UIPM had conducted the change, saying the sport had no other choice if it wanted to stay in the Olympics afterParis 2024.
The Frenchman, who won the world title in 1987, said that one problem was that access to horses was very difficult in many parts of Africa and Asia – meaning the sport was not truly global – while the lottery element to pair horses with riders at events was also “unfair”.
He said: “We understand that some are unhappy. But we have far more people who want to embrace the change. What we are doing is building the future of our sport.”
Bouzou said bringing wider in obstacle racing was part of reforms designed to transform the sport – which moved from five days to one in 1996 – into a fast-moving event for TV.
“There are some things that are still to be tested,” he said.
“But if we do the whole thing with breaks it could arrive at something close to one hour. And if we make it nearly continuous, we arrive at something like 45 minutes. That’s ideal for a live program on American TV.”
Michael Payne, a former IOC director of marketing who was invited to join the UIPM fifth discipline working group as an external expert, said the sport had no option but to radically reform.
“The IOC has introduced pretty rigorous research data, which includes TV audience, social following, global footprint, spectators, and cost,” he said.
“And modern pentathlon performs right at the bottom. Unless you transform it, it is no longer contributing to the success, development and strength of the Olympics.”
Payne said David Hill, the former head of Fox Sports, had reiterated the point before the decision on Monday. “David, who is possibly the greatest living sports TV producer, told modern pentathlon: ‘At the moment you are at death’s door, but you have potential to become a prime time player if you repackage this.’”
Peter Hutton, the former chief executive of Eurosport and now head of sports and entertainment at Meta, also stressed that shorter formats were vital for TV.
“The advisers in the session were saying: ‘You don’t have to solve everything now,’” he said. “But the key thing is that you present a vision and picture that the IOC and LA 2028 thinks: ‘Hallelujah, they’ve come back with something that is bloody exciting and good.’ And they have.”
The British athlete James Cooke, the 2018 world champion, said he backed the reforms but granted the sport was split. “This is a very emotive subject,” said Cooke, who sits on the UIPM athletes’ commission.
“I also have a really close affinity with the sport of riding, but we needed to make a decision to safeguard the future of the sport.
“We were facing pressures, not just from the IOC, but over how to develop the sport in nations that don’t have ready access to horses. Hopefully it’s a new era in terms of kicking on and growing in more nations to make it a global sport.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism