Modern Pentathlon: A Sport For Warriors, Not Spectators

The 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm are usually remembered for the remarkable accomplishments of Jim Thorpe. In those Games, Thorpe famously won gold medals in the track and field pentathlon as well as the first Olympic decathlon, an event designed to determine the perfect athlete. For his accomplishments, he earned newspaper headlines, ticker-tape parades and was anointed by the King of Sweden "the greatest athlete in the world," an honorary title that has since been bestowed upon every Olympic gold medal decathlete.

Less remembered in those same Games is the story of a young US Army lieutenant competing in the first Olympic modern pentathlon, an event designed to determine the perfect warrior. The lieutenant finished fifth but may have won the gold if not for a controversial ruling during his best skill. In the pistol shooting competition, he packed the bullet holes so tightly to the target's center that, when two of ten bullets went unaccounted for, it was impossible to determine whether he completely missed the target or if the bullets passed through existing holes. The judges ruled the former despite his and many of his fellow competitors' insistence on the latter, and, as a result, he was denied a chance to stand on the Olympic podium.

As history would have it, the event and the lieutenant would have vastly diverging fortunes. After 1912, the modern pentathlon - a quirky sport similar to the triathlon except with guns, swords and horses for bikes -- would become one of the most overlooked events of the Olympics. Meanwhile, the American who finished a disappointing but respectable fifth, Lt. George S. Patton, would go on to stake his claim as the perfect warrior on the real battlefield becoming one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- field generals in history.

In Pictures: More Stories from Patton's Pentathlon

Despite its purpose and history, the sport that was once called the "military pentathlon" and the sport Patton described as – in spite of his misfortune with it -- a test of "the fitness of the perfect man-of-arms," has never effectively reached a worldwide audience and always seems to be on the verge of elimination from the Olympics.

In fact, the modern pentathlon is so out of favor with current IOC President Jacques Rogge that he twice proposed removing it in the last six years. In both instances -- once in 2002 and again in 2005 -- it narrowly avoided becoming the first sport since polo in 1936 to be excluded from the Summer Olympics. It is thus against the odds that the modern pentathlon is set to celebrate its 100th Anniversary at the 2012 London Games.

But Rogge will likely try again. With a program already topping more than 300 events comprised of some 28 different sports, Rogge believes the Olympics can't add new events from popular growing sports like golf, rugby, and squash, without removing other less popular events like baseball, softball, and the modern pentathlon.

It is therefore an ominous future for the modern pentathlon, and one that would make Baron Pierre de Coubertin's heart -- buried within Mount Olympus -- break apart. When he founded the modern pentathlon, de Coubertin, who more famously founded the modern Olympics, created an event that encapsulated the spirit and competitiveness of the international games.

"It's clear there will never be millions of pentathletes in the world," Joel Bouzou, former modern penthatlete and current secretary general of the modern pentathlon federation told the AP. "But it is a symbolic sport and part of Pierre de Coubertin's legacy. How can you kill the only sport created by the renovator of the games? If pentathlon is taken out of the program, it will die."

Military tradition inspired the collection of diverse skills de Coubertin pooled together -- swimming, running, pistol shooting, fencing and horseback riding. More specifically, it was the story of a young French soldier who utilized all five skills to deliver a message through enemy lines. De Coubertin believed that this set of events would move beyond track and field by testing more than just strength and speed, but would "test a man's moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete."

In 1912, de Coubertin, through Patton's example, succeeded. Even though many felt that he had earned the right to be disgruntled, Patton, in a manner that runs counter to how we remember him now, heaped praise upon the event and the camaraderie it fostered amongst his fellow competitors.

It was "an officers' competition, and certainly the high spirit of sportsmanship speaks volumes for the character of the officers of the present day," Patton said. "Each man did his best and took what fortune sent like a true soldier, and at the end we all felt more like good friends and comrades than rivals in a severe competition, yet this sport of friendship in no manner detracted from the zeal with which all strove for success."

Even after Patton's near-miss, the sport never gained a foothold beyond a few niche countries. The event was initially dominated by Swedes, who swept the podium places in the first two Olympics and won eight of the first nine gold medals – interrupted only by Gotthard Handrick, a German flying ace who became a national hero during the infamous 1936 Berlin Games. In the modern era, the winners have been primarily Russians and Eastern Europeans.

In today's Olympics, when marketability is as important as athletic ability, Olympic events need to capture more than just ideals and the spirit of sportsmanship. To this end, in recent years the modern pentathlon has undertaken major changes to its format to try to stave off Olympic extinction. The competition now takes place in one day, as opposed to five days when Patton competed. The team event was eliminated after 1992 and a women's competition added in 2000. And changes to the point system ensure that the competitor who crosses the finish line first in the 3,000 meter run -- the final event -- wins the gold.

Will these changes make a difference? Will more people now take an interest in the modern pentathlon? Probably not. In all likelihood, the IOC powerbrokers will always be able to cite the lack of widespread appeal as grounds to remove the modern pentathlon. But if they ever succeed, they will do so at the cost of removing the sport that best exemplifies the founding spirit of the Olympic Games.

In Pictures: More Stories from Patton's Pentathlon

Jeff Pyatt is the Managing Editor of RealClearSports. He can be reached at

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