Modern Pentathlon

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

First Olympic Appearance: 1912 (men); 2000 (women)

by Mike Morrison and Mark Zurlo

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The modern pentathlon comprises five individual sports—shooting, fencing, swimming, horse show jumping, and running. Sounds like a pretty weird combination, huh?


Did You Know?
American George Patton (yes, that George Patton) was a strong challenger for the modern pentathlon gold in 1912 but faltered in the shooting competition.


As the story goes, a young French officer in Napoleon's army was sent on an unfamiliar horse to deliver a message into hostile territory. He was first greeted by an enemy soldier with his sword drawn. The two dueled. The French officer won the duel and continued on his horse until it was shot out from under him. He fired a shot with his pistol and killed the enemy but his horse didn't make it. He swam across a river and ran the rest of the way to deliver his message. When he arrived, his commanding officer greeted him with, "What took you?"

The modern pentathlon used to be drawn out over anywhere from four to six days. Beginning with the Atlanta games in 1996, it had been condensed into one furious day of competition in the following order:

  1. Shooting In 40 seconds, each athlete uses an air pistol to fire 20 shots at 20 targets from 10 meters away.

  2. Fencing Using an épée (a rapier with a three-sided blade and guard over the tip), each competitor participates in a round-robin series where he/she fights each competitor once. The first to register a hit on their opponent wins, with each fight lasting a maximum of one minute. If neither scores a hit in the match, they both lose.

  3. Swimming Pentathletes are divided into separate heats depending on their previous times and each swim a 200-meter freestyle race. It is important to note that they are actually racing against the clock, not necessarily against each other.

  4. Show jumping Competitors are given horses chosen by a random drawing. They are then given 20 minutes to familiarize themselves with their horse. The competition consists of jumping twelve obstacles (fifteen fences, some obstacles are pairs of fences) over a 350–450 meter course in a predetermined time limit.

  5. Running The final event is a 3,000-meter run, not on an oval track, but rather on a twisting course laid out to resemble a cross-country race. To increase drama, competitors start their race in the order of their standing in the prior four events. Therefore, the top three finishers in the running event are the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners of the entire modern pentathlon competition.

The modern pentathlon at the 2008 games will feature 36 men and 36 women competing on August 21 and 22, respectively. The running and equestrian events will be held at the Olympic Sports Center Stadium, the swimming competition at the Ying Tung Natatorium, and the fencing and shooting events at the Olympic Green Convention Center.

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