Powerful historical undercurrents

The staging of the modern pentathlon in wooded, peaceful Goudi thus has powerful historical undercurrents, even without the looming possibility of banishment from the Olympics program. This unwieldy combined event, which calls for mental acuity as well as physical skills, was hard to stage and took too long to keep spectator interest alive. This did not sit well with the IOC’s need to keep the Games current and generate new interest. In response, the promoters of the supposedly old-fashioned modern pentathlon have shown remarkable dexterity and keen survival instincts, tinkering with the program endlessly to keep alive the «modern» moniker. At first it was only an individual event, as it is now, though for 40 years (1952-92) there was also a team competition. It was generally held over five days, with one event each day. Occasionally (1920, 1984, 1992) it lasted four days. Earlier, the tally was based on an athletes’ placing; later this became a points system, like today’s decathlon. More radical engineering has followed; the five-day event was condensed to a single day for the 1996 Atlanta Games. For Sydney 2000, some of the races, like swimming and running, were shortened (from 300 to 200 meters and from 4,000 to 3,000 meters respectively) to emphasize speed over endurance. And a handicapping system now ensures that the first across the line in the last event, running, is also the event winner, creating more suspense at the end. And the fourth of the five disciplines calls for riding an unfamiliar horse, which has spelled the end of many medal hopes. Traditionally, this has been a European stronghold, with Sweden showing a dominance approached only by the Americans in basketball and the Japanese in judo. Nine of the 20 gold medals awarded since 1912 have gone to Swedes, and their overall record is even more impressive; in 1912 and 1920 the top four placers were all Swedes, in 1924 the top three, in 1928 and 1932 three of the top four, 1948 two of the top three, and 1952-56 the gold. The huge enthusiasm in Scandinavia today for orienteering as a participant and even TV sport may have its origins in this success. Central Europeans, especially Hungarians, have dominated the past few decades, although a Swede again won the 2004 World Cup in Mexico. By contrast, no American or Brit has ever won the men’s event. The modern pentathlon federation brought women into the competition in 2000 for the first time, so Athens, which has inaugurated the first Olympic women’s wrestling competition and introduced female athletes to Ancient Olympia, will see the second installment, today, of female pentathletes. Unlike the men, the inaugural women’s competition was dominated by the Anglo-Saxons, who also happened to be remarkably well-educated. A simple display of raw fighting power it is not. But it will take all that brainpower and more for the modern pentathlon – the traditionalist event with the ancient name – to fight off its critics and remain on the contemporary Games bill.

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