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- 22 Aug 08, 08:05 PM
Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, Beijing
How do you know you're a good modern pentathlete unless you get the chance to try it?
Be honest, how many of you have tried all five sports - shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running - even once?
I've never fenced (although there were those accusations about Gary Mahoney's skateboard at school which were never proved as I had no idea it was his when I sold it) and I only tried shooting for the first time on my stag do (I was dressed as Borat at the time and not at my best). I have also only ever been pony trekking twice - the last time being about 25 years ago.
I only mention this because I've just been to the %3Ca%20href="%3Ca%20href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/olympics/modern_pentathlon/7576185.stm">women's modern pentathlon and I can't help wondering if all Olympic gold medals really are equal.
Now before I'm swamped with angry protests from modern pentathletes (a worrying thought as you have all been trained to be perfect 19th century officers), let me first say I really enjoyed the event, particularly the final run.
In case the rest of you haven't seen it - and if you like the %3Ca%20href="http://www.gladiatorszone.co.uk/events/eliminator.php">eliminator in Gladiators you'll love this - the runners set off in order of their ranking after the four events. All the points they have earned so far equate to a head start they get on the person behind.
The race is three 1,000m laps, which inevitably leads to excitement, as it is far easier to chase than it is to lead.
Going into the women's race on Friday, Lena Schoneborn had earned a 19-second advantage over Britain's %3Ca%20href="http://www.olympics.org.uk/beijing2008/AthleteProfile.aspx?id=6693">Heather Fell. Swiss Belinda Schreiber was next to go, another 12 seconds back, but the one they were all concerned about was the speedy Victoria Tereshuk of Ukraine in sixth place. Team GB's second competitor, %3Ca%20href="http://www.katylivingston.co.uk/">Katy Livingston, was a minute back in ninth.
The 25-year-old Fell took two seconds off the German leader on the first lap and six more on the second. She was now just 11 seconds behind and a storming finish seemed possible. But Schoneborn dug in and crossed the line still nine seconds clear. Tereshuk, meanwhile, had run herself into the bronze medal position. Livingston, who shot and fenced poorly, ran well to come home seventh.
The staggered starts and first-through-the-tape finish are a great idea and I wonder if it could be introduced to the decathlon and heptathlon too, but I digress.
So I did enjoy the event. I also do not doubt the hard work or physical prowess of the competitors.
Of the disciplines I know, I was impressed. The quickest runner clocked a fine 10:04 for 3,000m, and the top swimmer recorded an impressive 2:09 for the 200m freestyle.
I don't know anything about shooting but what I saw of the 10m air pistol event looked thoroughly professional. As did the epee fencing, which again is a nice format - all the competitors face each other once; the first to score wins.
And the show jumping section is blooper film gold. The competitors are allocated a horse 20 minutes before the start. This introduces an element of fortune into the event but was intended to replicate what might happen if that 19th century officer was ever caught behind enemy lines.
The men's event on Thursday took part after a storm of almost Biblical proportions. This made conditions very difficult, particularly on a new horse. %3Ca%20href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/olympics/modern_pentathlon/7574828.stm">Carnage ensued to the degree that it looked as though these guys were trying show jumping for the first time too.
So far, all good. But I come back to that first question. How, unless you have tried all this stuff before, %3Ca%20href="http://www.modern-pentathlon.com/">would you know you had it in you to be an Olympic champion modern pentathlete?
Back in the day, when modern Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin (above) was formulating his view that France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War was a result of not enough British public school-type sport, this was not such a problem. There were, after all, lots of army officers who shot, fenced, swam, rode and ran.
One such officer took part in the first modern pentathlon in 1912. An American, he came fifth in controversial fashion when he was marked down for his shooting. The judges claimed he missed the target with one shot but he was adamant he had put one bullet through another bullet hole. He might have been right as his other shots were excellently grouped. His name was %3Ca%20href="http://www.generalpatton.com/biography.html">George S. Patton. The "General" would come later.
In fact, another early name for the sport was the military pentathlon, which in many ways was a far more accurate description. It was invented purely for the Olympics by Coubertin to reprise the pentathlon that was at the heart of the Ancient Games. That event, Aristotle's favourite, was also based on the things a soldier should be good at - running, wrestling, long jump, throwing the javelin and throwing the discus.
The military connection with the sport would continue right until very recent years, during which time the event was dominated by officer-types from Soviet Bloc countries.
Threatened with its marching orders throughout the 1970s and 80s, the sport took action to broaden its appeal and fit more neatly into the Olympic schedule. The five-day slog (which at that time featured guns, duelling swords and a cross-country steeplechase) was reduced to a one-day format, and a women's event was added in 2000 (%3Ca%20href="http://www.olympics.org.uk/sportmedal.aspx?gt=s&sp=MP">an event Great Britain has never failed to win a medal in).
Other, more recent concessions to modernity include using a portentous "one minute to the start of the run" countdown voice (that sounded a lot like Richard E. Grant) and setting the entire final run to a pounding dance beat.
The sport's governing body also fought a dogged PR campaign that played heavily on modern pentathlon's links with Coubertin and the fact it was cheap as it used venues already built for other sports.
All of which is true but it doesn't necessarily make it accessible to the vast majority of people in even rich nations, or particularly relevant as a multi-discipline event to the 21st century. What were once the requisite skills for a good soldier now seem more like the opportunities available to a sporty kid from a wealthy family. Who, apart from a few fortunate youngsters, ever really gets the chance to combine these now very arbitrary skills?
Now I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, particularly as Schoneborn, Fell and Tereshuk were so nice to each other in the press conference after the medal ceremony. Their success here was clearly a fitting reward for lots of effort and personal sacrifices. I am genuinely pleased for all of them.
But in a week when we've also seen the hugely successful introduction of two new sports to the Olympics schedule (open water swimming and BMX), it might be worth asking if the (not very) modern pentathlon is still worth its place in today's Games.
Might it be time to think of a more up-to-date test of control, skill, speed, adaptability and endurance? Any ideas?
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