Modern Pentathlon

Stephan Wassong

The ancient Greeks regarded the pentathlon as an important event, because competitors had to excel in a combination of physical and motor skills, including speed, strength, agility and endurance. The pentathlon with its five disciplines – jumping, discus, running (one length of the stadium, 192.5 metres), javelin and wrestling – was first introduced at the ancient Olympic Games in 708 B.C., the 18th Olympiad. It is interesting to note that jumping, discus and javelin were held only in connection with the pentathlon but not as individual events.


At the Second International Olympic Games in Athens in 1906 (the so-called interim Olympic Games), an ancient pentathlon event was held, comprising standing long jump, Greek discus in the classical style, javelin, stadium run and wrestling. This competition was not held at the 1908 London Olympic Games but enjoyed a revival at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games in a revised form, comprising long jump with approach, javelin, 200-metre run, discus and 1,500-metre run.


Since 1912, the modern pentathlon has become part of the Olympic competition calendar. The idea of the modern pentathlon can be traced back to Pierre de Coubertin, whose guiding idea for the creation of this event already formed part of his concept of utilitarian gymnastics. At the 11th Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Berlin in 1909, Coubertin finally managed to increase the IOC members’ awareness of the modern pentathlon. In Berlin, Stockholm was chosen as the host city for the Olympic Games in 1912. An organising committee was established in Sweden and chaired by Victor Balck, who was a close confidant of Coubertin, a founding member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and had been the chairman of the International Ice Skating Union since 1892. The Swedish committee was responsible for the organisation of the Olympic Games and its competitions, about which it took the committee almost until the eve of the Olympic Games to finalise the rules on modern pentathlon.


Finally, agreement was reached on the order of the disciplines, with shooting (pistol) followed by swimming (300 metres freestyle), fencing (épée sword), riding (show jumping) and running (4,000 metres cross country). Possibly the biggest point of discussion was about whether the athletes should use their own horses or whether the organising committee should provide horses for them.


Initially, the organising committee was against providing horses for the athletes. It strongly upheld its position, but could not change Coubertin’s negative view of it. For Coubertin, it would undermine the democratic nature of the pentathlon if everyone had to bring their own horses. It would distort the competition and even exclude those athletes who were unable to obtain horses or pay to transport them. If the rule favoured by the organising committee were to be implemented, Coubertin wanted to withdraw the trophy he had intended to donate for the winner of the pentathlon:

“What I want to say is about my pentathlon. The claim which forces each man to provide his own horse cannot be maintained. It puts the whole thing wrong – and to such an extent that I could not give the cup unless the rule is changed. I never meant to show that men who are good horsemen and trained in horsemanship can also fence and run and swim; I meant to show that runners and swimmers and fencers who, as a rule, are not of the same social standing can ride a horse and that the impossibility for them to keep a horse of their own ought not to keep them from riding occasionally.” [1]
Cup donated by Coubertin for the winner of the modern pentathlon

Finally, agreement was reached on a compromise proposal to allow competitors to use their own horses or horses provided by the organising committee. The first edition of the new Olympic competition could therefore begin and was scheduled to take place between 7 and 11 July. In total, 32 athletes from 10 nations competed in the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. With 12 competitors, Sweden entered the most athletes. The remaining 20 athletes came from Austria (1), Germany (1), Holland (1), the USA (1), France (2), Norway (2), Great Britain (3), Denmark (4) and Russia (5). The Swedes were also the most successful competitors. Of the top 10 places in the modern pentathlon, seven were won by Sweden, and the gold, silver and bronze medals went to Sweden. The dominance of Sweden should not be surprising given that the organising committee had already decided in January 1912 to organise systematic training programmes and qualification competitions for the Swedish athletes. For nearly all the other athletes, the new Olympic event of modern pentathlon was something of an adventure.


Of course, Coubertin was well aware of the fact that the Olympic debut of modern pentathlon was dominated by athletes who were army officers. He viewed this not without criticism but thought that the field of competitors would become more diverse once the new event had developed its profile, and he was proved right.


As the founder of the modern pentathlon, Coubertin was largely satisfied with the first edition of the new Olympic event. His constructive criticism related to the order of the disciplines and the compromise solution with the horses. In his view, the order of the disciplines should be changed to avoid the competition ending with the sports that imposed the greatest physical burden on the athletes. Therefore, Coubertin proposed the following order to ensure a more even balance between mental and physical stress: shooting, running, fencing, swimming and riding. With regard to the horses, he suggested that future organising committees provide all competitors with horses. With these two proposals, he laid the foundations for the further development of the modern pentathlon as an Olympic event.


Of course, the profile of modern pentathlon has changed since 1912. The disciplines have remained the same but have been modified over time, also as a consequence of advances in technology and sport equipment. Probably the most drastic change has been the modification of the duration of the competition. From the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, the competition lasted between four and six days. The International Modern Pentathlon Union radically altered the format by scheduling all five events in one day to make it more attractive to the media and spectators. Such reform was necessary to avoid exclusion from the Olympic programme.


[1] Coubertin, Pierre de quoted in Molzberger, Ansgar: Die Olympischen Spiele 1912 in Stockholm. Zwischen Patriotismus und Internationalität [The 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. Between patriotism and internationality]. Sankt Augustin 2012, 105.