Here's a great way to make some extra cash:
1. Go into a bar.
2. Bet people $5 that they can't name three of the five events in modern pentathlon.
3. Collect your money.
Even better: Show them this logo of the sport and make them guess from there.
Believe it or not, modern pentathlon is NOT a bunch of athletes escaping on horseback from the Predator's gunsights. It's five different disciplines, all meant to represent the duties of a 19th century cavalry officer. Seriously. Here's what you need to know about modern pentathlon to win yourself some easy bets.
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To get it out of the way, yes, this is the event with the laser gun shooting. But it also includes: fencing, freestyle swimming and show jumping(!), all topped off with a nice little 3k run. You're probably saying to yourself, "Self, none of these things go together and none of them are modern." You're right! (It's also, with four events, not strictly a pentathlon. But we'll get to that.)
The modern pentathlon isn't modern because of its state-of-the art-events. It's modern because it replaced the stodgy old pentathlon that was good enough for more than 2,500 years. In ancient Olympic times there was a pentathlon that comprised discus, javelin, long jumping, running and wrestling. After founding the modern Olympic games in 1896, Pierre de Coubertin felt the event needed to be updated too, so he tossed out those crusty disciplines and replaced them with exciting new ones, plus a horse. It was introduced with this thrilling narrative:
"A soldier is ordered to deliver a message on horseback. When the horse went down, he was forced to defend himself with both a sword and pistol. He completed his mission by swimming across a river and running a long distance through the woods."
(That's right, "the woods." That's why the 3k run goes cross country.)
Officially debuting in 1912, the modern pentathlon is the only event created specifically for the Olympic games, and world championships have been held annually since 1949. But Olympic modern pentathlon has fallen on hard times, and needs your support. The event has struggled in our modern-modern era to gain momentum and enthusiasm outside of Eastern Europe, where they probably still fight off bandits on horseback and tend to dominate the sport. Many changes have been made to try and give it a boost. In 1996 they changed the competition format from a four-day event to a one-day event, and went from a point system to a combined system in which whoever crossed the finish line first would win. All this to try to drum up some excitement, which has proven difficult given that the women's competition in Beijing took twelve hours to complete.
At the IOC's 2005 session, modern pentathlon was on the chopping block to be cut from the Olympic program altogether. It narrowly received a stay of execution, but only through this year. In 2008, in another attempt to make the sport more watchable, the governing body of modern pentathlon combined shooting and running into one superdiscipline.
It "completely changes the ethos of the sport that was formulated by Baron de Coubertin," said Jan Bartu, now the head coach of Britain's modern pentathlon team. "But whatever we feel or would like to do, we need to move on and adapt to the changes."
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Some sports are fine being simple. Put the ball in the basket. Get to that end of the pool first. Jump really far. Modern pentathlon don't play that game. The competition breaks down like this:
1. Fencing – Each athlete fences every other athlete. The first to achieve a good touch is the winner. They need to keep this show moving, so each bout must produce a winner in one minute, or both will be declared losers. Every time you lose, you also lose points equal to a seven-second delay in your starting time for the final run.
2. Swimming - After tense sword fighting it's time for a relaxing dip in the pool. Athletes swim 200 meters freestyle and aim for the "par for the course" time of 2:30. Every second slower than 2:30 and you get hit with a three second delay on the running. You get hit mega-hard for failures like false starts.
3. Show Jumping - You don't just have to ride a horse in modern pentathlon. The rules state that you must ride an "unfamiliar horse." No bringing your own mount, one you've spent half your life training. The organizers assign you a horse at random (presumably a trained one) and you get 20 minutes to bond like hell with that thing before taking it out to jump over twelve obstacles. Hit something and get docked points. Fall off your mighty beast more than once and you get eliminated. Exceed the time limit by more than a minute and you're eliminated. Rough.
4/5. Combined Event – Time handicaps are tallied up from the previous events. The leader goes first, and everyone else starts based on how many points they're behind. About 20 meters down the way you'll come upon a shooting range. It's there that the most modern part of modern pentathlon takes place. You must hit five targets with a LASER GUN, "reloading" after each shot. Then you run 1000 meters. Then you hit another shooting range. Then you run 1000 meters. Then you hit another shooting range. In the end you've should have hit 15 targets and run a 3k. If you finish first, you win.
Modern pentathlon has had difficulty adjusting to its new modern laser gun, introduced in 2010 to save money and improve safety, at the expense of the old air pistol. At the last year's European championships, four top athletes failed to hit their five targets within the 70-second time limit.
"These are athletes with proven ability in the combined event who don't take 20-plus shots to hit five targets down," said Great Britain's Sam Weale, a medal contender this year. "This is athletes' careers and lives at stake, with Olympic futures in jeopardy."
The laser guns seem to have the most problems on sunny days—direct sunlight on the target can cause shots not to register. The sport's governing body promised to have these issues worked out by the Olympics, but the only concrete step they took was to make sure the shooting event takes place in the evening. So we'll see.
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Who's good at this? The Swedes and Eastern Europeans have largely dominated the sport, with the last three men's gold medalists hailing from Russia. Women's pentathlon has only been an Olympic sport since 2000, and the competition has been much more wide open, with only the Brits medaling each time.
Modern pentathlon is also a sweet matchmaking sport. 1988 bronze medalist Vakhtang Iagorashvili of Georgia fell in post-Cold War love with USA pentathlete Mary Beth Larsen in the mid ‘90s. After they married, she finished fourth in Sydney, while he went on to compete for his adopted country of America in 2004.
Since the modern penthathlon is only guaranteed Olympic inclusion through these games, this could be your LAST chance to experience the strange disconnected greatness. So watch this badass promo video…and get psyched.
Lindsey Green is an Olympic obsessive. (Nearly a decade as a gymnast will do that to a person.) You can keep up with her Olympic thoughts and general sports pondering here and here. If you want to employ her for real reasons, then you should be a startup looking for PR.