The Glorious Irrelevance of Modern Pentathlon

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The 100-year-old Olympic event is obscure and unpopular—yet it represents much of what's great about the Games.

helfers_pentathlon.jpg
Reuters

Every two years or so, in the hubbub leading up to the Olympics, a spurned sigh can be heard in certain sectors of the sporting world. Given the increasingly post-amateur landscape of the games, critics wonder how popular pastimes such as baseball or cricket have again been left off the menu. All of the ingredients are there: big names, global fan-bases, kooky mascots, a surplus of tradition. The formula seems simple. Throw an Albert Pujols or an Ichiro Suzuki into snazzy Ralph Lauren, add precious metal, and voila, ratings gold.

If only it were so easy. The International Olympic Committee, a motley of bureaucrats, aristocrats, royals, and retired athletes, only allows a maximum of 28 disciplines. Because most are mainstays, like swimming or gymnastics, the selection process is rigorous. To qualify, a sport must have a governing federation, inter-continental coverage, world championships, and at least 50 practicing countries (40 for women). The real barrier, however, is the final vote—the majority of I.O.C. delegates must agree to inclusion. London's debutante? Women's boxing. Unobjectionable, unless you find C.T.E. problematic.

In all fairness, the 2016 Rio program will pick up crowd-pleasers in golf and rugby sevens. But worthy omissions remain. What about softball? Or climbing? We are primates, after all. And if lacrosse doesn't make the grade, then why curling? Why speed-walking? With so many deserving sports, why preserve the ones that nobody watches?

Exhibit A: the Modern Pentathlon, which combines fencing, shooting, cross-country running, swimming, and horse jumping. Now in its centennial year, the event was created by the French historian Baron Pierre De Coubertin (the same Pierre de Coubertin whose name graces everything from a Montreal stadium to a minor planet) as a way of determining the consummate soldier, back when men wore pajamas in the pool and let their pistols do the trash-talking. The rules are as Byzantine as the scoring system, and even a cursory scan of the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) homepage furrows the brow. The fencing segment resembles speed-dating, with each athlete facing all rivals in a succession of minute-long bouts. Even more puzzling is the equestrian component.

In the riding event, the athletes have to complete a show jumping course that includes 12 obstacles in a set time. To make things harder, the athletes ride unfamiliar horses that are assigned randomly. Each athlete gets just 20 minutes and five practice jumps to get to know the horse in the warm-up ring, before coming out to compete. A clear round within the time allowed is worth 1,200 pentathlon points. Competitors lose 20 points for each jump they knock down, 40 points for a refusal to jump and 60 points for a fall. They also lose four points for each second they are over the allotted time.

Forgetting the fact that spectators need a Ti-82 to follow the action, the random-horse clause means that an ornery steed could squash your chances of making the podium. Is it just me, or does this sound like the stuff of Calvinball?

No doubt aware of its PR problems, the UIPM has taken recent steps to make the sport more appealing. For the Atlanta games, the five components were packed into a single day, allowing endurance, a time-tested measure of athletic aptitude, to play a larger role. In Sydney, women competed for the first time, but it was Beijing that brought the biggest nod to the masses: the air-pistol contest took place during the 3k run, for a climactic biathlon. With time penalties assessed beforehand, the new format ensured that the first person to the finish line would take home the gold.

This weekend, when the event kicks off at the Copper Box, there will be one additional twist: To avoid reloading hiccups, pentathletes will be using laser guns. More Star Wars than Peloponnesian, this development may pull in a handful of extra viewers, if only for the sake of novelty, but it seems a clear sign that the Modern Pentathlon is suffering from an identity crisis. If the I.O.C. puts any stock in Darwinism, then maybe it's time to bid adieu to the most unnatural selection in the program.

Of course, I would never say this to a pentathlete, because a pentathlete, épée to my jugular, would point out that the sport is no more "unnatural" than many of the contests we hold dear. Anyone who has every played slow-pitch softball will acknowledge the complexities of the infield fly rule, which becomes even harder to explain under the influence of warm beer. As for football, the typical playbook compares with a Tort Reform tome. And what about soccer? Why not a three-hued carding system, to account for the primary colors?

The truth is that under a microscope, most organized sports look a little disorganized. From the three-pointer to the shootout, ad-hoc addenda have emerged time and again to improve fairness, entertainment value, consistency, or safety. Behind the veil of tradition, most of our games prove imperfect, born not of Moses-on-Mount-Sinai sanctity, but rather of trial and error, of reinvention and intervention. So, with the exception of the more straightforward contests like running, major-market alternatives aren't any more natural than esoteric inclusions; they're just more popular.

For the sake of argument, you could even make the case that the Modern Pentathlon best embodies De Coubertin's Olympism, the governing credo for the games. Abstractions bandied about in the I.O.C. charter[1] include balance, unity, dignity, culture, camaraderie, and universalism. Such stately words certainly conjure the ideal pentathlete, a less-conflicted Count Vronsky, say, or a more-civilized Annie Oakley. One pictures a lordly renaissance person of yesteryear, the polite connoisseur of all things athletic, who, between cigar puffs, would extend a spar merely to give an inferior opponent a fighting chance. Tempting though this reading may be, the reality is much different. After 100 years of development, the Modern Pentathlon has developed very little in a sporting climate predicated upon popularity. Even worse, considering the high price of horse ownership, it comes off as an economic shibboleth, an anachronism grandfathered into the games by the ennobled I.O.C.

And yet, there is still a part of me that pulls for the Modern Pentathlon. Despite its elitist origins, despite its insider status, there is a still a part of me that loves the Modern Pentathlon. I love it in the way that I love sand mandala or the Didgeridoo or whittling. I love that such endeavors, far removed from our everyday existence, persist. I love that for a single moment of perceived glory, whether before 70 people or 70 million people, somebody will sacrifice so much. I love that the better part of a life can be spent perfecting some strangely specific set of tasks. In a culture where we celebrate our biggest sports stars as often as they celebrate themselves, maybe there's something to be said for the Modern Pentathlon. Maybe it's because of sports like these—so pointless, so non-remunerative, so culturally irrelevant—that we care so much about the Olympics. We care because of the real amateurs who toil in obscurity for little more than the purity of the pursuit.

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Edward Helfers teaches writing at the University of Maryland. His fiction and criticism have appeared in JERRY Magazine and Web Conjunctions. He swam for Duke University.

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