Military background

The modern pentathlon, created by the founder of the contemporary Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, has its roots in the duties required of a soldier. A soldier is ordered to deliver a message; the tide of battle hangs upon its delivery. The soldier mounts the nearest horse and gallops off, leaping any obstacles in his path. He is forced to dismount and fight his way through enemy patrols with sword and pistol. He swims across a river barring his way and runs through thick woods before finally accomplishing his mission. In an Olympic context, the above scenario describes the modern pentathlon. At the Olympics, the soldier — or athlete — will carry out the four-part task in a slightly different order. That’s because the events in the modern pentathlon are (in sequence) fencing, swimming, riding, and a combined running/shooting event.

All-around Olympic athlete

When de Coubertin created the modern pentathlon, he was creating a sport that not only required the skills of a military courier, but that also distinguished the true all-around Olympic athlete. Track and field’s decathlon purports to define the “world’s greatest athlete,” but the same few skills (speed, strength, explosiveness) are responsible for success in the majority of the events. Modern pentathlon, on the other hand, requires a variety of skills: strength, endurance, dexterity and mental concentration. Combat sports (fencing), aquatic sports (swimming), equestrian sports (show jumping), athletic sports (cross-country running), and mental sports (shooting) are represented. De Coubertin envisioned — and created — the “complete” Olympic sport.

Entering the Games

Modern pentathlon made its Olympic debut in 1912. The sport was considered a test of the skills that were taught at military academies at the time. Only Army officers were allowed to participate, and the sport was dominated by military officers until the 1952, when Sweden’s Lars Hall became the first civilian to win a gold medal in the sport. A men’s team event was contested at the Olympics from 1952 through 1992. A women’s individual event was added at the 2000 Sydney Games.