By Philip Barker
It is not often that the media get the chance to have a go at a sport in top-class facilities on the eve of a world championship, still less when the rules of that sport have been changed in dramatic fashion only a few months before.
About a dozen journalists yesterday took up the challenge thrown down by Britainâ€™s modern pentathlon team to have a go at the new â€œrun-shoot” combined event that will form the grand finale of every top international competition from the world championships being staged here in London through the weekend, possibly right through to the 2012 Olympics, provided the IOC rubberstamps the proposal in Berlin today.
Most recently, the fifth and final discipline of a modern pentathlon was a 3,000-metre run. Now, it is punctuated by three stops with 70 seconds available each time to hit the 59.5mm target (smaller than a regular CD) positioned 10 metres away and score five hits.
Before we hacks graduated to that, there was a quick tutorial with the single shot CO2 air pistol. Out in the open air, one factor immediately becomes apparent: even the slightest waft of wind has a significant impact on accuracy.
Next door, Mike Rowbotham seemed to be making good progress and London Tonightâ€™s Lewis Vaughan Jones was also alongside us, accompanied by Sam Weale, a top 10 finisher in Beijing.
â€œIt has changed the whole psychological approach to the event,â€ Weale said. “Having to deal with pressure in that first event was what made a pentathlete.
“If you started with a good shoot you carried that throughout the day, whereas now you can release the nervous energy over the run and you come into the range in a different mindset. Whether it is easier you canâ€™t really say. It is just different.”
The BBCâ€™s Olly Foster was keen enough to â€œraceâ€ Olympic silver medallist Heather Fell and performed respectably in the run. Then Fell simply brought up five green lights in as many shots to demonstrate exactly how it ought to be done.
Whether it was the wind or simply down to a left-hander shooting a right-handed gun, I managed only one green light. That though, was before attempting the run. After 400m (the pentathletes do 3×1,000m), it proved impossible to calm down sufficiently to hit the target again. Even loading the pellets in the pistol became a challenge.
Beijing Olympian Katy Livingston was sympathetic. â€œThere can be a feeling of panic when the lights aren’t going out and people are going off before you. Iâ€™d definitely compare it to the penalty shoot-out in football,” she said.
The pressure will be on the organisers to get the results in the new format out to the media as quickly as possible. The grandstand press box at Crystal Palace is doubling as the media centre for this week’s world championships, when domestic journalists are likely to be outnumbered by those from overseas.
Competition begins today and the organisers have done their best to make the venue look colourful and worthy of a world championship, the first staged in London in an Olympic sport since the 1986 hockey World Cup.
Brightly coloured banners will provide the backdrop, and watch out for the London themed fences in the riding section. Competitors will find themselves negotiating the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge in miniature form, as horses are let loose on the infield in the stadium for the first time.
It should look terrific on television: the BBC is showing coverage on their red button service.