According to a 19th-century story, a young French cavalry officer was sent on horseback to deliver a message. To complete his job, he had to ride, fight with a sword, shoot, swim and run. These are the five disciplines that face competitors in modern pentathlon – all in a single day.
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Baron de Coubertin was an admirer of the Pentathlon held in the ancient Olympic 2020 Games, which was modeled on the skills needed by a soldier at the time. He proposed a similar competition that embraced the spirit of its ancient counterpart. It was de Coubertin’s belief that this sport, above all others, would test ‘a man’s moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete’.
Modern pentathlon was first held at the Stockholm 1912 Games, with a women’s competition introduced at Sydney 2000. Originally the elements were spread over four or five days, but since Atlanta 1996 all five disciplines have taken place in a single day. Thanks to a wide range of innovations, Modern Pentathlon has become a more demanding sport that pushes athletes to their limits.
The Union International de Pentathlon Modern (UIPM) was founded in 1948 and now has more than 120 member countries, reflecting the steady spread of the sport worldwide. The Participants score points in the first three events, which decide their starting position for the final Laser-Run event, composed of the shooting and running disciplines.
Athletes compete against all others, using the epée. The struggle is a round-robin of one-minute matches, the most successful athletes winning the most points. The short, quick bouts demand complete attention and the flexibility to cope with different opponents. The 200-meter freestyle event is a test of power and strength. The competitors line up in heats according to their fastest times and are awarded points based on their finishing times. The format is elimination and bouts last 30 seconds.
Athletes must ride an unskilled horse over a show jumping course without incurring penalties and within the allotted time. In the standalone sport of equestrian, riders and horses train together, in modern pentathlon, competitors are paired with their horses in a draw just 20 minutes before they compete.
The competitors are ranked according to their score from the first three disciplines with the leader going first. One point equals a one-second advantage. In this final combined event, athletes must complete four circuits of shooting five targets from a distance of 10 meters within 50 seconds using a laser pistol and running 800m. The challenge is to continue a good speed then catch your breath to shoot calmly and carefully.
The countries of western and eastern Europe have conquered Olympic Modern Pentathlon, with Hungary and Sweden particularly prominent. In 1912 Stockholm and 1932 Los Angeles Games, Swedish athletes won 13 of the 15 medals available.
Medalists in recent years have come from a greater range of countries and continents – indeed, six different teams were represented on the podium in both the men’s and women’s struggles at London 2012 and Rio 2016, with medals going back to Asia, South America, and Oceania. It will be fascinating to see whether this trend continues in Tokyo Olympic or the sport’s historically strong nations return to prominence.