Thoroughly modern pentathlon

By Philip Barker
The sport was devised by the founder of the modern Olympics, but if Pierre de Coubertin was to return for next month’s modern pentathlon world championships being staged at Crystal Palace, he might have some difficulty recognising his creation.

The event will be the first world championships in the sport to feature new rules which will apply at the London Olympics in 2012. Many feel the changes have altered the sport forever.

Traditionally modern pentathlon was a test of shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and cross-country running. In Guatemala last year the world governing body voted to combine the running and pistol shooting elements in a heart-thumping finale – a sort of skiing biathlon, but without the snow or skis – to try and make the sport “more spectator- and television-friendly”.

Shooting has always been notoriously difficult to televise. Under the new rules, modpen competitors have 70 seconds to shoot five shots on target before running 1,000 metres. Then its run-shoot-run-shoot before the final energy sapping race to the finish.

Despite the attraction of its variety of disciplines, modern pentathlon has always struggled to attract television coverage. In the past 20 years, with its Olympic status, and therefore the sport’s very existence, under threat, it has “reinvented” itself more than once.

Back in 1976, the drama of the old-style Olympic modern pentathlon unfolded, Test match-like, over five long days when the British team of Jim Fox, Danny Nightingale and Adrian Parker won the Olympic team gold medal in a controversial competition in Montreal.

Jan Bartu was part of the Czechoslovak team which followed the British home in those Games. He’s seen the sport make the first big change in the mid-1990s, when all the disciplines were staged on a single day and now, as the performance director of the British team, he is pragmatic about this latest change.

“We’re in the same boat as everyone else,” Bartu says. “It hasn’t been the easiest process for some of the athletes but the recent results show they’ve been skilful and flexible to accommodate the new requirement.”

The purists may not like the changes, but Modern Pentathlon’s Olympic future really did hang in the balance in 2004. The Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) went on the offensive in Athens. It tugged the heart strings of IOC members by reminding them that de Coubertin had invented their sport, and when the IOC met in Singapore the following year to vote on the sports to stay on the programme, modern pentathlon survived. It will celebrate its Olympic centenary in 2012.

The IOC regularly re-examines participation and medal spreads, TV viewing figures and suitability for television. Next month in Berlin, an the two sports recommended for addition to the Olympic programme in 2016 – from squash, rugby 7s, golf, baseball and softball, and roller sports – will be announced. After baseball and softball were cut from the programme for 2012, the message to all sports was clear: nothing on the Olympic sports programme is sacrosanct.

Britain’s modern pentathlon strength in recent times has been with our women’s competitors, but it took until 2000 for them to get their chance at the Olympics – although by then, the sport was contested only individually, and not as teams. Stephanie Cook performed superbly well to win the gold, and Kate Allenby took bronze. Georgina Harland won another bronze in Athens and Heather Fell’s silver in Beijing kept up a superb record.

Fell will spearhead the British challenge at Crystal Palace, with Beijing team mate Katy Livingston, who placed seventh at the Olympics, alongside her. Mhairi Spence will also start, having been denied her Olympic chance because only only two from each country are allowed to take part in the Games.

Another member of the team is the exciting teenaged talent Freyja Prentice, who finished 12th in the world juniorc hampionships last month in Chinese Taipei.

In the men’s competition, Britain will have both their Olympic competitors on show: Sam Weale was 10th in appalling conditions in Beijing and Nick Woodbridge 25th.

As well as the individual events, the world championships features a team competition and relays.

These championships are not an official Olympic test event, but 2012 sport director John Woodbridge will surely learn plenty from organising such an competition.

They’ve already had one valuable lesson from the event in Beijing. Television viewers, spectators in the stadium and journalists found it difficult to track the competitors in the running stage of the event because of too many loops and turns in too confined a space as the local organisers attempted to contrive a “stadium” finale. The riding phase in Beijing was also controversial because the standard of horses provided turned the competition, especially for the men, into a lottery.

Crystal Palace will also be a handy exercise for the BBC. Modern pentathlon is not a sport they regularly cover. They will be showing the world championships on their interactive service. The opening ceremony on August 12 launches proceedings and competition gets under way the following day.

This will be the first world championship in London for an Olympic sport since the 1986 hockey World Cup. It is set to attract a sizeable overseas press contingent, with traditional pentathlon nations such as Hungary showing particular interest. The Chinese will also be here in force.

The media centre at the championships is being organised by Caroline Searle’s Matchtight group, who have arranged a media conference for the British team on August 11 at Crystal Palace. They are offering a chance for journalists to have a go at the new run-shoot format, though plans to make reporters run the full 1,000m before shooting have for some reason been shelved.

Click here for more recent articles on journalism, sport and sports journalism

SJA MEMBERS: Make sure your profile details are up to date in the 2010 SJA Yearbook by clicking here