All sports are keen on attracting two life-sustaining relationships: Television and the U.S. market. The latest is the modern pentathlon, a sport probably invented by Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. The ‘modern’ in the title is to distinguish it from the sport in the ancient Olympics, not to suggest it has anything to do with the contemporary.
De Coubertin’s pentathlon winner was the ‘complete athlete’ — the Olympics is always trying to discover the ‘complete athlete’, and for a while it was thought the decathlon winner was the one. The original five events — fencing, swimming, horse riding, pistol shooting and cross country racing — were modelled on the ‘romantic rough adventures’ of a cavalry officer trying to deliver a message from behind enemy lines.
According to de Coubertin, the officer’s horse is brought down in enemy territory. He now has a pistol and a sword to defend himself with as he swims across a river to finally deliver his message on foot. Somehow success was also seen as endorsement of the athlete’s moral qualities.
By the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the last event had become the laser-run, four rounds of laser pistol shooting followed by 800m run each time. A German coach punched a horse (not an event in the pentathlon; horse-punching is looked down upon), and was thrown out of the Olympics.
It can be frustrating when the rider meets the horse for the first time at the competition and is given just 20 minutes to get familiar with the animal. Hence the plan to remove this from the competition.
And so on to television and America. The motto for both is: shorter, simplified, gimmick-filled. Originally the pentathlon was held over five days. Since 1996 it has been a one-day event.
Post-modern pentathlon, with television and America in mind, might be reduced to a 45-minute event. Show jumping could be replaced by obstacle racing. Some of the other experiments are showing the athletes’ heartbeats as they race, amplifying the noise of the weapons while fencing and changing the broadcasting style to something Hollywood might approve. Any resemblance to the five-day game in cricket being shortened, simplified and being pumped with gimmicks to the T20 format is, presumably, merely coincidental. Television and America, that’s the key phrase.
Repackaging any sport can be exciting, even if the governing body of the modern pentathlon thinks it is aiming for a sport that is a cross between a James Bond movie and the television game show, The Krypton Factor.
Getting messages back from behind the enemy lines is pre-twentieth century, so it may be time to look at the modern pentathlon afresh. With five new events (guaranteed to take no more than 45 minutes) that helps find the moral and physical and possibly the strong-minded athlete.
Some of these are defined today by negatives: physical being someone who does not spend his days on a couch watching TV, moral the person who doesn’t attack his country’s legislative building, and so on.