The Glorious Irrelevance of Modern Pentathlon

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


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.

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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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