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Pentathlon returns to Greece, uncertain future

Is the pentathlon – that Olympic perennial that also carries long associations with Greece – about to go the way of rope-climbing, tug-of-war and the dodo? Such questions have dogged the modern pentathlon federation for years, and may arise again after this week’s competitions, as the Olympic movement again tries to streamline itself, fight «gigantism» and keep its youthful appeal. For pentathletes and their enthusiasts, the Olympics’ return to their homeland may mark not a new beginning but another round of circling the wagons and fending off accusations that it’s not just tradition-bound but hidebound. An event that simulates an officer’s survival tactics is itself fighting to survive as an Olympic sport. Yesterday and today, modern pentathletes reign at Goudi as they rein in their horses, shoot, swim, run and fence each of their opponents in a unique combination of disciplines thought up by Pierre de Coubertin, who created the event to approximate the skills needed by a military officer assigned to deliver a message but having to fight his way out of enemy territory. The baron – who turned down the military career path typical of the 19th century aristocracy to follow his lifelong Olympics project – believed it to represent the supreme test of an officer and a gentleman. Yet this celebration of traditional virtues has run up against relentless modernism. Could yesterday’s rousing win by Andrey Moiseev of Russia mark one of the last Olympic victories by a pentathlete, or will it provide a badly needed boost? The pentathlon has always been a five-discipline hybrid. In antiquity, it encompassed (in order) long jump, discus, javelin, a running race and wrestling. The final two were also held as separate events; the last two were competed only if a clear winner had not emerged after the first three, like Davis Cup tennis in our time. It was considered the supreme physical test, combining sports that were (according to legend) associated with Hercules. These may have been reintroduced at Olympia gradually after 776 BC, the traditional beginning of the Ancient Olympics. The pentathlon was central to Olympic myth as well as sport. No pentathlon was competed at the all-male 1896 revival Games of Athens, but it was reconstituted for the 1912 Games at Stockholm. There, not one but two different pentathlons (as well as the 10-event decathlon) were all begun, opening a century of complication, experimentation, and confusion that has dogged this multiple event to the present. The first track-and-field pentathlon and decathlon were both won by the legendary Jim Thorpe, a native American widely considered the greatest-ever athlete (with future International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage also competing). At the same time, de Coubertin’s modern pentathlon was introduced, first won by the host country’s Gosta Lillehook – with future US General George Patton placing fifth. Both pentathlons were held at the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Games before athletics focused solely on the decathlon, as it does today. (Women were later given their own track-and-field pentathlon, which became, in 1984, a seven-event heptathlon.) The modern pentathlon remained on the bill, though it has gone through dizzying alterations that belie its conservative underpinnings. The modern pentathlon introduced specifically military-type skills into an Olympics institution that was based on promoting sport as a means to international harmony, and which later launched a modern version of the old Olympic Truce. This may seem paradoxical until we realize that, even in antiquity, war and the Olympics went hand in hand; the museum there displays a vast collection of helmets, armor and other war booty. And the single most spectacular violation of the ancient truce, in 364 BC, happened right in the middle of the pentathlon. Bloodshed at the Olympics, imposed from outside, didn’t happen again until Munich in 1972. This week’s modern pentathlon is being held at Goudi, a venerated old royal retreat that has also played a key role in Greek political history. After years of political pusillanimity in Athens over popular uprisings in Crete for enosis (union) with Greece proper, fed-up officers at the Goudi military garrison formed the Military League in 1909, then staged a coup, demanding the resignation of Parliament and the king’s family – who had organized the 1896 and 1906 Games of Athens – from influential positions. This led to an uneasy interregnum that had shades of Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived constitutional republic in 17th century England. As if to atone for such recklessness, the league also precipitated the rise of Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos, perhaps modern Greece’s most influential and eloquent leader.