P is for Pentathlon

Modern Pentathlon: Elitist? Bizarre? Outmoded? Rollicking Fun, I say! Photo from bbc.co.uk.

No one’s ever actually seen the pentathlon. Except the athletes and the judges (presumably) who participate. Primetime U.S. TV has never shown so much as a still photo of the winner, and even the back cable channels limit the images to the finish line and medal ceremony. This is partly because Americans don’t place well, not to mention that the sports are odd choices, the guidelines are obscure, and the leader board requires a supercomputer to evaluate. It’s the bailiwick of Swedes, Hungarians, and Germans, so who cares, other than the Swedes, Hungarians and Germans? Yet, Nordic Cross-Country is also full of Swedes and Germans, and at least those races are televised. The pentathlon is complicated, it’s elitist, it’s old-fashioned, but … it’s also rip-roaring fun!

Even for the Greeks, It Sounded Like a Bar Bet

OK, Pheiades, you threw that stick longer than I did, but I jumped farther.
Yeah, Glaucus, but my discus beat yours.
But my stick beat your stick by much more than your discus beat my discus.
Hmmm…race you to that olive tree….*pant…pant*… you koprophagos! You got a head start.
Well, that’s two wins apiece. How are we going to–
Wrestle ya for it…*aggh urgh*… I win!
How about best 2 out of 3?… Best 3 out of 5…4 out of…? Where are you going?

The Greek Pentathlon.

There was a Greek pentathlon because the urns say so. Unfortunately, the urns don’t explain how they determined the winner. Some have speculated that it might have been the winner of three out of five, while other historians suggest they might have narrowed down the field to the top Final Four who wrestled for the title.

It’s likely they didn’t use a points-based system as we do today, since ancient Greeks didn’t have data warehouses or even calculators. 1457.2 points is hard to designate on an abacus. Especially when you haven’t invented zero yet.

In the early days of the modern Olympcs, the pentathlon was reinstated in its original Greek form: long jump, discus, javelin, foot race, and wrestling. The competition was held for three sets of Olympics before being dropped. Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and the decathlon in 1912, the first year both were contested. There was also a Men’s All-Around and a Men’s Triathlon in 1904. Little wonder that, by 1928, the fellows having to add up all these things by hand cried mercy. They took out most of the combined events, leaving only the decathlon.

Pentathlon Times Two Is the Decathlon

Americans are much more familiar with the decathlon, which, after all, is just two pentathlons. We have had lots of Olympic decathlon winners, and those are hyped to the max. Many remember Reebok’s “Dan vs. Dave” ad campaign before 1992 Barcelona; many also remember that it was a bust when Dan O’Brien missed the cut at the trials. Fewer may recall that both Dan and Dave eventually ended up Olympic medalists.

Team USA has won 14 out of the 24 golds in the decathlon, and 2 of the 9 heptathlons (women, seven events vs men, ten). Jackie-Joyner Kersee, who won those two golds, makes the top five list of greatest female athletes. We Americans can follow multi-sport contests and lionize the winners, if we want to.

Ashton Eaton, hunky decathlete. Photo composite from Pinterest.

In fact, with the decathlon, we seem to need a story, whether it’s Dan vs. Dave, British Daley Thompson winning the Cold War by beating the Russians in Moscow, or the romance of Ashton and Brianna. This classic “decathlon” photo of Eaton puts his wife’s embrace front and center, as if it was the primary goal of all the running and jumping. Perhaps that was why, when Pierre de Coubertin dreamed up the modern pentathlon, he had to link it to a story.

The Romantic Soldier in de Coubertin’s Fantasies

The modern pentathlon is also five events: Fencing, Swimming, Horse Jumping, Shooting, and a Foot Race. If the metric mile seems like a sport invented by committee, the modern pentathlon seems like a crazy idea conjured up by a wealthy French aristocrat who threatened to take his Olympics and go home if they didn’t appease him. De Coubertin tried to justify this combination by saying the event would “test a man’s moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete.” Since that was probably followed by a chorus of raspberries, he invented a scenario:

A military messenger has to get through enemy lines, so he starts off on horse, jumping off the horse and shooting his way through enemy lines. He runs out of bullets, he has to fence his way through. Gets to a river, swims, then runs.

Ivar Sisneiga, former Mexican pentathlete, explaining the pentathlon in Nationalpost.com.

The problem is that many of these events as contested don’t have inherent drama. Fencing is fascinating, but when there are 36 athletes, all facing each other simultaneously, it’s just a blur of “engardes” and ripostes. Since few are actually good swimmers, the swimming races have little interest or suspense as they’re swimming against the clock, more than each other. It might be more interesting if contestants were required to wear military uniforms–while swimming.

Show jumping involves watching one horse after another complete the course, and either knocking down or not knocking down the last hurdle. Oh, but to make the equestrian part more exciting, riders are assigned an unfamiliar horse at random. That just seems like messing with people.

In recent years, to add further spice to the competition, organizers have compressed the contest days down from five to two, and combined the last events into a biathlon (running/shooting). This has actually created hugely entertaining contests. If you’ve ever seen a winter biathlon, skiing and shooting, you know why. Anything can happen because, as NBC-announcer Chad Salmena likes to say, “Because it’s biathlon, baby!”

Chloe Esposito leaps ahead with eagle-eye shooting. Photo at ABC.net.

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!

What makes the modern pentathlon exciting was on display in Rio in the women’s pentathlon. Poland’s Oktawia Nowacka had dominated in the fencing and had jumped and swam well enough to start the final with a lead of multiple seconds. Australia’s Chloe Esposito started in seventh place, almost a minute behind the leaders.

Yet Esposito kept inching forward, eating up the distance as all ran the 3k, stopping to shoot after every kilometer. Pistol shooting requires athletes to hit five targets and shoot until they do, though they must put their pistol down and raise it after every shot. Time-consuming. Esposito shot with only one miss in the fifteen. She ate up the lead meter by meter, then sprinted past Nowacka to the tape to win with world record points.

The pentathlon is a sport both growing in popularity and at risk of being eliminated from future Olympics. Although as many as 800 Americans regularly compete, it requires you to be an expert at events reserved for people with access to horses and fencing clubs. You might be able to practice the swimming, running, and even shooting fairly easily, but not everyone can practice show jumping. With unfamiliar horses, no less.

Still, the change to turn the end into a biathlon was genius. It would be as if the Winter Olympics had a pentathlon of ski jumping, luge, speed skating, THEN the Nordic biathlon. But, what if instead of ski jumping, it were freestyle ski tricks, then snowboard races, like the X Games?

That’s what we really need!


My proposal is that we change the modern pentathlon to a 21st century pentathlon based on popular sports, like the X Games. Since in Tokyo 2021, they are going to add surfing, skateboarding, and free climbing, let’s just combine a bunch of millennial sports:

  • Skateboarding
  • Sport climbing
  • Surfing
  • Gaming (the eSport Olympics do already exist)
  • BMX

Let’s rewrite the story:

A Navy SEAL turned CIA-spy goes into deep undercover. Entering a skateboarding competition in Malta, his cover is blown and he must climb to safety. After escaping via ship, the ship sinks, and he must surf to shore on a piece of driftwood, after which he must race on an abandoned kid’s bike to the enemy warehouse, hack their computer system to get the secret information, then escape his pursuers on the bike…

Kajmeister’s new Pentathlon-X

Sure, sounds ludicrous. But wouldn’t you like to see it?

Kajmeister’s 21st Century Pentathlon. Photo credits available on request. Coming soon to an X Games near you!

This post continues the A to Z Challenge using the Olympic theme:

2 Replies to “P is for Pentathlon”

  1. Great stuff! How about a winter pentathlon in the North Sea? I wish there were more letters in the alphabet. Maybe you could use the Greek alphabet next.

    1. Fishing, ice fishing, harpooning, sailing over big waves, and whittling??? (Dont know enuf about the North Sea.) But thanks for the Vote of Confidence!

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