What Exactly is a Modern Pentathlon?

The modern pentathlon was devised by the father of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, but it is fair to say that it is one of the Olympic sports with the lowest profile. As the name suggests the pentathlon has competitors taking part in five different disciplines over a two day period, and there are separate competitions for men and women. The event was devised to match the skills required of a soldier, so the participants compete in fencing, shooting, swimming, riding and running.

Popularity

The modern pentathlon has never really caught on in the way the decathlon or heptathlon has in the world of track or field, perhaps because sports such as show jumping, cross country running and fencing do not attract big audiences in their own right. Eastern Europe is where modern pentathlon as a discipline is strongest, with the medallists in the men’s competition in Beijing coming from Russia and Lithuania. A British woman, Heather Fell, won silver in Beijing but this has done little to raise the profile of the sport.

Format

As in the heptathlon, the athletes do not compete directly against each other, but try to score as many points as possible by going fastest or shooting with the most accuracy. There are several differences from the traditional events which mark modern pentathlon out as unusual. Recently the shooting and running has been combined, so participants take part in three lots of shooting, each round followed by a 1,000 metre run. Accuracy and speed combined is essential to score high points. In the riding, the competitors draw lots to see which horse they will be riding, as it is thought that riding an unfamiliar horse shows the rider’s expertise better. All horses used in the competition are high quality horses accustomed to showjumping in an arena and are fed on top quality horse feed oils and other products. The horses are subject to the same doping controls as the competitors, so it is impossible to get an edge on the competition by slipping some extra horse feed supplements into the feed bag just before the showjumping begins.

Future

Because of the lack of popularity of the modern pentathlon, it has still to be decided whether the event will feature on the calendar for the Rio Olympics in 2016. The London event may be the last time the pentathlon features on the Olympic programme, although there is also an annual world championship which is as import to pentathletes as the Olympic Games. Any sport requires a stream of new talent to survive, and although children and young people have embraced new sports such as beach volleyball or handball, there has not been a surge in interest in the pentathlon. Perhaps if the UK or Ireland produced a world beating champion there would be demands for more fencing or shooting clubs opening their doors to schoolchildren, but unless things change dramatically there is likely to be no world-beating British or Irish pentathlete in the near future.

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