- 23 Jul 08, 12:41 PM
Everything in British modern pentathlon seems to be four years ahead of schedule.
Not only has Team GB crammed the maximum four pentathletes into this year's Olympics - something planned for London, not Beijing - but before 2008's event has even started, BBC Sport's team find ourselves yards from the 2012 pentathlon venue in Greenwich.
Pentathlon's powers-that-be chose Greenwich as the backdrop for the team's final media appearance before they head off to China. It's a wise decision, not least because the Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum, where the press gathering takes place, is a magisterial, imposing setting. Somehow that suits modern pentathlon, on first glance one of the less fathomable Olympic sports.
Every time I write about pentathlon I feel compelled to trawl out the list of all five sports involved - well, I'm bored with that (and pentathlon fans, though few in number, must despair when reporters insist on spelling out the basics for the umpteenth time, like having every football report start with "the match lasted approximately 90 minutes, with 11 men on each team").
If you're not sure then you can find out here but, honestly, you don't even need to know. The only pentathlon knowledge you need, before you sit down to watch it on 21 and 22 August, is that Great Britain's competitors are really good and ought to win a medal in the women's event. Then you can pick up the sports as you go along.
See more photos of the GB modern pentathletes on BBC Sport's Flickr stream.
Katy Livingston and Heather Fell are the two women in the squad, tasked with extending Britain's thus-far preposterous success in Olympic pentathlon. Of all the medals ever available in women's Olympic pentathlon, Britain has won half - which sounds staggering until you realise it was only introduced for Sydney 2000. Steph Cook won gold there, Kate Allenby took bronze, and Georgina Harland added another bronze at Athens, so GB has three out of six medals on the mantelpiece.
Livingston and Fell inherit this daunting legacy, but at least one of them ought to come home with a medal too. Livingston was third at the recent World Championships in Hungary, with Fell behind her in fourth, and they've been there or thereabouts in the world rankings all year. Obviously Britain isn't the only nation blessed with gifted modern pentathletes - France's Amelie Caze is another name to look out for - but if neither of these two get on the podium, performance director Jan Bartu is going to be a disappointed man.
There is an essential, life-giving formula for Olympic sports in the UK: win medals and you'll get funding. When Bartu took over in 1998, he tells us, British modern pentathlon had £50,000 in the kitty - enough to pay his annual salary and bankroll some trips abroad for athletes. Now, a decade into his remarkably successful tenure, Bartu has a seven-figure sum at his disposal, thanks primarily to those medals won by Cook, Allenby and Harland.
A lot of that money has been used to elevate the men's team to something approaching those lofty heights, which in effect means the women's success has paid for the men to improve. Two years ago, Heather Fell had lost her funding and taken up a job as a barmaid to pay for her fight to get back into the national setup. In front of the BBC Sport cameras in Greenwich, she admits to us that for a time, you might have thought the men's team were hogging a disproportionate amount of the cash for very little return.
That's not the case now. Fell is thrilled that even though they took their time, Sam Weale and Nick Woodbridge have become the first British male modern pentathletes to reach an Olympics since Richard Phelps in 1996. When I ask the boys if that means they feel pressured, I get a resounding "no" both times - reaching the Games in the first place has been a huge achievement, anything else now is a bonus.
Confirmation of their places took forever to arrive, in part because of a complicated appeal involving Woodbridge and an Australian athlete. My first question to Nick is about that appeal but he "doesn't want to get into it", which is intriguing, but now is not the time to be subjecting modern pentathletes to the Paxman treatment and we move on.
Weale, in particular, is an astonishingly good interviewee. These interviews are the ones which will appear on television moments before the Olympic pentathlon coverage begins, so they have to contain all the basics - form in the run-up to the Games, medal hopes in Beijing, all of that. This means there is a real danger of your athlete falling down dead through boredom, since they've probably answered some of these questions a thousand times.
But if you're sat at home and you've never heard of Sam Weale, you may well want to know if he thinks he's going to win a medal - and Sam dutifully attacks every single question with enthusiasm, vigour and genuine thought. The way he speaks about the complexities of trying to balance success in modern pentathlon with a safe job to fall back on (and a decent personal life) highlights realities of being an Olympian that aren't normally conveyed. Watch the full interview when it arrives on the BBC Sport website, it will be worth your while.
That said, he didn't seem overly thrilled when I compared him to Phillips Idowu in the hairstyle stakes. I think we might edit that bit out...
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