Five-ring Circus

Modern Problems

The pentathlon struggles to survive another games.

There’s something endearingly antiquated about the modern pentathlon, perhaps the only sport to include shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian jumping, and running. These unrelated exploits are supposed to tell the story of a military officer who, in an attempt to deliver a message during battle, had to face off with the enemy using a pistol and a sword while on horseback. After his horse was shot out from under him, the imaginary messenger had to swim and run to accomplish his mission.

The modern pentathlon was considered the crown jewel of the games by modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, but maybe that’s just because he invented it. The ancient pentathlon—wrestling, discus throwing, running, long jump, javelin—was the high point of the classical games, lauded by Aristotle as the ultimate athletic accomplishment. Coubertin updated the event to position the pentathlete as a 19th-century superhero, an officer and a gentleman. But for all its glamorous history (including such illustrious past competitors as not-yet-Gen. George S. Patton *), the modern pentathlon is in peril.

By 2002, only two years after the debut of the women’s pentathlon in Sydney, the International Olympic Committee was already sick of the event. A proposal to eliminate the men’s and women’s events altogether was ultimately argued down, and the event will return in Beijing in 2008. After watching this year’s events, which were hidden in the last two days of televised coverage, it’s easy to see why the IOC has its doubts about the sport.

The pentathlon, by its very nature, is not telegenic. The five sports go by so quickly (and, in the case of fencing, facelessly) that it’s tough to get to get to know each competitor as a distinct personality. The other major problem is that, because of a complicated scoring system that handicaps the final race based on the athlete’s standing in the four previous events, the climactic run to the finish isn’t climactic at all. There’s something inherently unexciting about watching a track event in which every runner starts at a different time—the effect is less of a footrace than of a bunch of joggers casually passing each other in the park. Both the men’s champion, Russian Andrey Moiseev, and the women’s champion, Hungary’s  Zsuzsanna Voros, started far out in front of the rest of the field in the final run. By the end, they were both so far ahead that they had time to stop off at the stands, grab their nation’s flag from a bystander, and carry it aloft across the finish line.

The announcers of the women’s pentathlon labored comically to find human-interest stories in the sprawling daylong event—as they were careful to note, two of the pentathletes, Americans Vaho Iagorashvili and Mary Beth Iagorashvili, are man and wife. But since neither of them came close to medaling, that story was a non-starter. Lean Dong, who surprised everyone by placing first in shooting, blew it in the riding segment by literally falling off her wildly bucking horse. (Since riders are “introduced” to their mounts only 20 minutes before the event begins, the equestrian segment can look more like rodeo than dressage.) But Dong easily got back on her horse and finished the course without incident; another inspirational anecdote thwarted.

In the end, the pentathlon seems a likely victim of the modern world’s approach to sport. Sure, the abstract idea of an athlete who can do everything—or at least everything a Napoleonic officer could—sounds cool. But as sporting events grow ever more specialized, there maybe no more room in the Olympic lineup for the sporting equivalent of a nerdy humanities major.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2004: This article originally stated that Jim Thorpe competed in the modern pentathlon. In fact, Thorpe participated in the pentathlon, an event that is now defunct. (Return to corrected sentence.)