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 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.