How to become a modern pentathlete - and why
When politicians and leading lights bang on for the umpteenth time about their commitment to "grass-roots" sport, it always comes down to one thing: accessibility.
Jumpers for goalposts in every park. A cricket bat in each child's hand. Free swimming. Junior tennis. A way in as the beating heart of any sport.
The way into most sports is fairly obvious. Even the decathlon, with 10 disciplines to master, broadly involves events you might have tried at sports day growing up. (Though I've occasionally wondered how one tries pole vault for the first time - presumably you can't just grab a pole and declare, "I've seen it done.")
Modern pentathlon, on the other hand, demands five very different talents from its athletes, several of which Britain's youngsters are simply not exposed to on a regular basis.
You need to run and swim. Fine, we can tick those boxes, runners and swimmers abound. Show jumping is doable. Fencing and shooting? Trickier. All five? Come on, now.
Is it really that hard, though? How do you become a modern pentathlete, and could you be doing that instead of sitting and reading this?
A one-line answer to that question isn't easy. Even Heather Fell, who won Olympic pentathlon silver for Britain at Beijing 2008, told me that routes into the sport remain hard to explain.
"I was at a school sports awards recently and three girls came up to me - they did three events each, with none of them doing fencing, and they were asking how to start pentathlon," she said.
"They asked: 'How do we know if we're good at shooting?' And I wasn't completely sure. Generally, I don't think there are many clubs in the country. Instead, you need to speak to Pentathlon GB via their website and go along to a mini-centre.
"But if I was in their situation I'd feel a little bit lost and not quite sure where to go."
With a series of Olympic medal-winning performances over the past decade and a home Games on the horizon, pentathlon now has the funding to ramp up its search for the next generation of multi-tasking athletes. Fell, though, reckons the sport still has more to do.
"You start with the Schools Biathlon (which involves running and swimming) and then it naturally progresses up - that's the 'pentathlon way' you're supposed to come into the sport," she said.
"That doesn't need to change, but it does need to widen. We need to make the shooting more accessible - kids can find somewhere to run, swimming is brought in at school level, but shooting is a big step up.
"You need specialist places to learn that, and riding takes the most time, so you need to know you're going to be good at the other sports before taking up the riding."
Fancy yourself as a pentathlon hot-shot? Photo: PA
Peter Hart, once a pentathlete for Britain at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is now the chief executive of the sport in the UK. He is the least chief-executivey chief executive I've met. When the BBC team needed a gazebo in which to house our kit near the World Cup finish line, Hart found one, and then helped put it up. When was the last time you saw Sepp Blatter with tent pegs and a hammer?
Hart does, indeed, adhere to what Fell calls the 'pentathlon way', but he says the big thing to remember is to take things slowly.
"The first steps are the running and swimming events," he explained. "We had 4,500 people doing Schools Biathlon this year. Then we look at the top 10 of each age group and suggest to them that they might want to do pentathlon - the next steps possibly being learning to shoot and fence. The funding has enabled us to do that in more local areas than we could before.
"It then depends on age. If you're under 16 then concentrate on running and swimming, and we'll slowly introduce the others. Because if you're doing five disciplines with all the other pressures of life - exams, boyfriends, girlfriends, physical development - it's too much at 15. So it's running and swimming, then shooting, then slowly fencing and riding.
"For most of our athletes, the riding comes last - and you don't need to own your own horse, which is something we have to impress on people very quickly."
What's the attraction, though? Let's face it, learning five different sports is a lot of hard work for a sport which barely scrapes onto the media radar (slightly undeservedly - the all-day finals are lengthy affairs, and they used to take five days, but then so does a Test match). And your reward for success is a shot at one Olympic medal every four years. That's a lot of disappointed pentathletes, right there.
Care must be taken phrasing this, but it seems the biggest thing going for pentathlon is that you don't have to be the best at anything. The fastest swimmers, quickest runners and best show jumpers are probably not the best pentathletes. You need a jack-of-all-trades mentality which the best, most dedicated single-sport athletes possibly don't possess.
"We're looking for county swimmers or runners who play a bit of rugby, hockey or netball," added Hart. "Multi-sports people who are coming fourth, fifth or sixth at swimming club - the triers and grafters.
"The profile of an Olympic medallist in pentathlon is 28 years of age, which is quite late in the day by Olympic standards. And it's those guys who try hard at county level and haven't trained flat out in one sport who adapt much easier."
And therein lies hope, surely, for a large number of junior athletes. If you're one of them, or a mum or dad, remember: perpetually finishing fourth doesn't mean that Olympic dream is dying - you just need to find room in the armoury for four more sports.
Get the running and swimming to a decent standard, enter the Schools Biathlon, and maybe the tap on the shoulder will come.
Becoming a modern pentathlete in five easy steps
(Probably best attempted while still young)
1. Get your running and swimming up to a good standard, but you don't have to be the best.
2. Enter a Schools Biathlon event to draw the attention of Pentathlon GB (there were races during the World Cup weekend, watched by coaches).
3. Get shooting and fencing instruction with the help of Pentathlon GB.
4. If you're good at those, get on a horse and try show jumping.
5. Still with us? Then, my child, you are a modern pentathlete.
Alternatively: Several pentathletes, Heather Fell included, are veterans of an initiative called Pony Club Tetrathlon. This turns the above on its head by adding in riding and shooting at quite an early age, with fencing coming last.