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A Five-Star Challenge

Modern pentathlon survives and thrives despite threats it may be dropped

August 27, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The Olympics specializes in niche sports, and modern pentathlon occupies an especially distinctive niche.

Modern pentathlon involves five disciplines: shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and running.

The idea is to mimic a soldier ordered to deliver a message -- on the back of an unfamiliar horse, through a duel with swords, a shootout, a swim across a river and a cross-country run.

Too expensive for most to even think about taking up, a snoozer on TV, modern pentathlon has been threatened time and again with extinction by the International Olympic Committee.

It refuses to die, though. In fact, it survives and thrives.

The men's competition Thursday drew a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 -- even with temperatures in the 90s. Another capacity crowd is expected for the women's competition today.

The competition Thursday started at 10 a.m. with the first shots from the air pistols and the gold wasn't won until after 6:15 p.m., by Russia's Andrey Moiseev.

Families brought picnic baskets and had lunch between the second and third events, fencing and swimming. The atmosphere was so friendly that competitors such as Chad Senior of the United States posed for pictures with fans after the fourth event, riding, and the fifth, the run.

Skeptics might call it hokey, but modern pentathlon has long featured a cultural component that actively promotes education, history and the Olympic ideals. Among those in the stands Thursday were high school students from the U.S. They did not find the day hokey in the least.

"It's excellent, you know," said Cayetano Anguiano, 16, of Jefferson High in Los Angeles. "People competing for the gold medal, everyone giving effort. It inspires me. If they can do it, why not us?"

Even corporate sponsors were on board -- though modern pentathlon's international governing body, which goes by the acronym UIPM, derived from its name in French, would like to generate more corporate interest.

"We think it's the truest form of sport," said Jim Davis, chairman of New Balance, the Boston shoe company.

"We're a really cool sport," said John Helmick, an Oregon businessman and UIPM vice president. "OK, we're never going to be competing before 500,000 people. We're never going to have NBA- or NFL-size crowds. But that doesn't mean people who come in contact with it aren't changed by it."

In the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin is widely credited with the revival of the Olympics and his ideas carry enormous weight. It was his idea to revive the pentathlon, which at the ancient Games involved running, jumping, wrestling and throwing the javelin and discus.

Modern pentathlon first appeared in the Olympics in the Stockholm Games of 1912. To this day, UIPM's colors are blue and yellow -- the colors in the Swedish flag -- and Swedish royalty has maintained a passion for the event. The king and queen were in the stands Thursday -- in the shaded VIP area.

A U.S. Army lieutenant, 26-year-old George Patton, finished fifth in 1912. He would go on to fame as a general during World War II, as author David Wallechinsky points out in "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics."

At the Mexico City Games in 1968, a Swedish pentathlete was disqualified for doping. Alcohol was commonly used then to steady the nerves for shooting and he had had too much to drink.

At the Munich Games in 1972, 14 athletes took tranquilizers before the shooting contest. At the 1980 Moscow Games, 15 failed doping tests for sedatives.

That sequence prompted talk that modern pentathlon had no place in the Olympics, but drug-testing was improved and the sport has had no significant doping issues since.

For most of the 20th century, modern pentathlon was held over a period of five days, one event per day. That proved too long and the UIPM switched to one day at the 1996 Atlanta Games. In 2000, women's competition was added.

In 2002, the IOC, fearful that the Games were getting too big, announced that it was looking to chop sports, mentioning baseball, softball and modern pentathlon as likely candidates.

In November 2002, at an IOC session in Mexico City, modern pentathlon saved itself yet again. How? With an impassioned plea to honor De Coubertin's memory, and with support in high places.

Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., an IOC member and son of the former IOC president, is a UIPM vice president. In the stands Thursday was Mario Vazquez Rana of Mexico, perhaps the most powerful Olympic official in the Western Hemisphere.

After these Games, the IOC intends to review all 28 Summer Games sports. Modern pentathlon, as well as baseball and softball, are safe for 2008, when the Games will be in Beijing. After that?

Klaus Schorman, UIPM president, is already planning for 2012 and beyond, looking to expand the sport.

The younger Samaranch too sees a golden future for modern pentathlon.

"This is the perfect sport," he said. "You need brains and guts to control the horse. You need calm and self-control for the shooting. You need stamina and energy for the fencing. You need fitness to run.

"I think we have a future. Yes."

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