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'12 Things ... you might not know about modern pentathlon

By Paul D. Bowker | June 05, 2012, 1 p.m. (ET)

Modern Pentathlon

A CENTURY OF OLYMPIC GAMES: Modern Pentathlon will celebrate its 100th Olympic anniversary at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The sport made its debut at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games. Women made their Olympic debut in pentathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The Modern Pentathlon in 1912 consisted of pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running. The current Olympic format combines the shooting and running portion into one event, which is new for the upcoming Olympic Games.

WORTHY OF A GENERAL: The first U.S. Olympian in pentathlon was none other than George S. Patton, who competed in the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games and later became the legendary general of the U.S. Army. He placed fifth in the pentathlon in Stockholm, and perhaps, ironically, a 21st-place finish in the shooting competition prevented him from a podium finish. He placed third in the 4,000-meter run, fourth in fencing, sixth in cross-country riding and seventh in swimming. His long military career included serving as Commander of the Third Army in France in 1944, when he played an important role in helping the Americans win the Battle of the Bulge. His military awards included three Distinguished Service Cross medals, the Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

THE FIRST USA MEDALIST: Richard Mayo became the first U.S. athlete to medal in the pentathlon in 1932, when he earned a bronze medal at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games. He also was an Olympian in 1928, placing 19th at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games. Since Mayo’s podium finish, the United States has won four individual medals, including a silver by Emily deRiel, who earned her medal in the first women’s Olympic competition in 2000 in Sydney. The United States has won team silver three times and bronze once.

AN OLYMPIAN AT 16: Margaux Isaksen was just 16 when she made her Olympic debut at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The youngest Olympic pentathlete in U.S. history, she placed 21st. She qualified for London by winning gold at the 2011 Pan American Games. “Being able to be there and see the other athletes and meet people from all over the world, I feel blessed,” Isaksen. “I’m so excited to be going back.”

MULTI-TASKING: Athletes in modern pentathlon are faced with competition in fencing, swimming, riding, and a combined event that involves running and shooting. And in the world of the pentathlon, the combined event means everything. If an athlete wins the fencing, swimming and riding, he/she still must survive the combined event in which an athlete must run to the shooting range, hit five targets in a timed period, run 1,000 meters, and do all of this three times. The athlete with the most total points entering the combined event does get the advantage of starting first. Other athletes start in a handicapped format of one second for every four points behind the leader. The first athlete across the final finish line wins gold. This is a new format for the Olympic Games, but one that will be easy for spectators to follow.

SCORING: The scoring system varies across the different disciplines, so keep those calculators handy. In swimming, a time of 2 minutes, 30 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle scores 1,000 points. Each 0.33 seconds below or above that time adds or subtracts four points. In riding, athletes begin with 1,200 points, and they lose 20 points for each jump they knock down, lose 40 points for each refusal to jump and lose 60 points for a fall. They also lose four points for each second they are over the allotted time to complete the course. In fencing, athletes score 1,000 points for winning 70 percent of their bouts. Each win above or below 70 percent adds or subtracts 24 points.

ONE BIG DAY: While the pentathlon has been held over several days in some Olympic Games, the pentathletes in London will complete in all their events in one day. There are just six medals up for grabs in two medal events, the men’s and the women’s competition. In all, 72 athletes will compete for those medals. The men’s competition will be held Aug. 11, and the women’s competition a day later. The pentathlon previously was held over five days, with one event being held per day. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, the men’s competition was consolidated into one day, and four years later, the women’s pentathlon was introduced as an Olympic sport in Sydney.

THE ORDER: The first element of the day for pentathletes in London will be epée fencing, in which each of the athletes will face each other in a series of bouts that is no longer than one minute. The first athlete to score a hit wins the bout; if neither athlete scores a hit in 60 seconds, then both athletes are assessed a loss. The fencing is followed by the 200-meter freestyle swim, riding over a 12-jump course and the combined shooting/running event.

HIGH-TECH SHOOTING: Instead of using pellet guns in the shooting portion of the pentathlon, athletes will use laser pistols and targets for the first time at the London Games. In the combined shooting/running event, athletes must hit a target five times and then proceed to a 1,000-meter run. The athletes face three rounds of the combined shoot/run.

VENUES: The pentathlon competition will be held at three venues. The Aquatics Centre will be host to the 200-meter freestyle event. The Copper Box will be host to the fencing competition. Greenwich Park, which is London’s oldest Royal Park, will be host to the riding and combined competitions. Greenwich Park is also home to The Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum, and is located next to the Thames River. “Our riding and combined facility actually looked out over the city,” said Isaksen, who competed in July 2011 at the London Test Event for pentathlon. “It’s beautiful.”

THE BEST EVER: Andras Balczo of Hungary is regarded as the best pentathlete of all time. He won five Olympic medals from 1960 through 1972, including team gold at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games and Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games, and individual gold in 1972 in Munich. The only U.S. athletes to win multiple Olympic medals were George Lambert and Jack Daniels, who each won team silver in 1956 and team bronze in 1960.

PHILOSOPHIC ATHLETICS: The long history of pentathlon captured the attention of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who called athletes in the pentathlon “perfect sportsmen, because in their bodies strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony.” At the 18th Olympiad in 708 B.C., the pentathlon consisted of athletes running the length of the stadium, jumping, throwing a spear, throwing a discus and wrestling.


SOURCES: USA Pentathlon, International Olympic Committee, london2012.com, sports-reference.com/olympics

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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