Unsung Sports: Modern Pentathlon

Andrei Moiseev of Russia shoots during the Combined Running/Shooting during the modern pentathlon World Championships at Ippodromo di Tor di Quinto on May 11, 2012 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

The name of modern pentathlon brings to mind an old joke: Why do they call it a building when it already has been built?

Why, indeed, do they use the term “modern” to identify a sport based on some of the oldest activities known to humankind? The pentathlon is designed to re-create
a set of skills ascribed to the ancient soldier.

The sport’s logo ought to be the cockroach, as indestructible as modern pentathlon has become in the Olympics. Periodic attempts to purge it from the Games have been unsuccessful, despite the obvious answer to this question: Do you know, or have you ever known, anyone who engages in this sport?

Apparently, its roots are dug so deeply that they have proven impossible to tear out. If nothing else, contemporary military men and women must get a kick out of viewing pursuits that they are unlikely to experience in modern warfare.

The sport is dipping a toe into the 21st century by replacing pellet-shooting pistols with ones that fire lasers in London.

HOW IT WORKS: The entire series is staged in one day. It begins with head-to-head fencing bouts, which end when one scores a hit on the other or after a minute. Then everyone heads to the pool for 200-meter races, conducted in heats. The horses are next, each athlete guiding one over a show-jumping course, with points deducted for imperfect rides. Aggregate scores are converted into a time handicap that determines the order for the combined foot-racing and shooting. Contestants hustle to the range, hit five targets within 70 seconds and run 1,000 miles, then repeat the ordeal twice. First person to the finish line — pant! pant! — wins.

HISTORY LESSON: Happy anniversary to you. Modern pentathlon toasts its 100th year as an Olympic sport, which would please nobody more than the man who jump-started the Games in 1896. Baron Pierre de Coubertin thought it would be cool to create a sport that tasked participants with riding an unfamiliar horse, fighting with a pistol and a sword, and racing by sea and land. The baron would not be happy to hear about efforts to oust the sport.

How he would feel about the introduction of women’s competition at the 2000 Games is unclear.

FIRST OF ALL: While Swedes stole off with every medal in 1912, the competition is recalled, in hindsight, mainly for the fifth-place finisher: George S. Patton Jr. Oddly, the man who became lionized as a U.S. general in World War II would have medaled had he not been the guy who couldn’t shoot straight. In the pistol phase, he was 21st out of 32nd.

REMEMBER THAT?: In 1920, Johan Oxenstierna was practicing his marksmanship in the woods when a policeman, unsure of his identity, threatened to arrest the Swede. Oxtenstierna persuaded the officer to release him, and he went on to win gold.

Nearly a half-century later, another Swede was not so lucky, earning disqualification. Seems that Hans Gunnar Liljenwall decided to prepare for the 1948 event by ingesting alcohol, not exactly a performance-enhancer. That made him riding/fighting/swimming/running while intoxicated. He was held out.

In ’68, Alex Watson of Australia one-upped Liljenwall for unique disqualification when he was bounced out because of too much caffeine in his system. Watson confessed to downing at least a dozen cups of coffee and a few cans of Coke, a mixture that might also be called the 25-hour energy drink.

STAR-GAZING: Two-time defending Olympic champion Andrey Moiseev of Russia remains prominently in the London picture, given his No. 2 world ranking. Reigning world champion and countryman Alexander Lesun could unseat him.

WHO’S GOT THE POWER: Russian men have copped the last two golds and are zeroing in on a three-peat. They rank 1-2-3 in the world. Different national anthems have played at the women’s three medal ceremonies, and a fourth could be cranked up in London if top-ranked Laura Asadauskaite of Lithuania prevails.

U-S-A, U-S-A: American men have collected two silvers and two bronze, none since 1960. The guys also secured three silvers and a bronze when a team competition happened from 1952-92.

In the charter women’s event, Emily deRiel, who learned the sport while studying for a master’s degree at Oxford University, was enroute to gold when Stephanie Cook of Great Britain outraced her. DeRiel consoled herself with silver.

AND THE NUMBER IS … 10. That’s the number of hours allotted for the competition, start to finish.

OLYMPIC DATES: Men, Aug. 11; women, Aug.12.

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