By: Tom Woodhall
Your father, a minor Duke in the Prussian Kingdom, thinks you should go off and join the Army. “Be a cavalry officer,” he says, knowing that because you’re the second son and your older brother seems perfectly fit and healthy, you should at least bring the family a few honours and wear a fancy uniform around the Christmas table.
However, he didn’t realize that Napoleon had every intention of taking over the world like some sort of second coming of Nero. Now, thanks to General Bulcher’s idiotic decision to have you, not some messenger, not some pikeman, but you, deliver a message to Wellington’s troops on the other side of Waterloo you’ve been cut off from your countrymen and you can’t retreat. The French have surrounded you and your horse is lame. You’re captured. At least you read and destroyed the message. You’ll just have to figure out how to escape from their sticky, cheese-stinking hands, in order to give it to Wellington verbally.
Despite disputed claims of origin, it is a situation like the one above that inspired the creation of one of the most unique, most enduring, and most entertaining Olympic sports. The Modern Pentathlon is not for the faint of heart. And I mean this from both the competitor’s and the audience’s perspective.
I knew a little of Modern Pentathlon–I’d wager more than most–owing to my strong affinity for niche athletic endeavours and unhealthy over-enjoyment of fringe sports. I’ve watched the sport on the internet, as normal Olympic coverage usually fails to highlight it in any meaningful way. To be clear, as our in-game host at the Pan-Am Games Modern Pentathlon competition this past weekend outlined, the start of the Modern Olympics in 1912 brought a newer, more up to date, version of the ancient Greek pentathlon. The ancient Spartan’s original event included discus, javelin, foot races, long jump and wrestling–often to the death. Like I said, this is not for the faint of heart.
The current version, which took place at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s beautiful new Pan-Am Aquatics Centre, has been updated from even the “modern” version of the 1912 Olympics. Designed for “ratings and relatives” the original five day competition has been squeezed into one action packed demonstration of what is essentially “old-timey soldiering skills.” Loosely based around the story of an escaping cavalry officer, the athletes today come from a variety of backgrounds, including some active servicemen. (The junior member of the U.S. contingent wore his service dress uniform during a portion of the event.)
The story, and the day, begins with our imaginary soldier trying to escape from behind enemy lines. In order to do so, he overpowers one of the guards and steals his sword; to escape, he must swashbuckle his way out of danger. Our competitors, 29 in all, typically with two from each country participating (although some had only one), were grouped into fours. The foursomes then began fencing, simultaneously, on five separate pistes (or ‘strips’ as you’d recognize them). You fence two others in your group (not your countryman), and then you shuffle on to the next group. Over and over, for 15 rounds, the groups of fencers rotate face two different opponents in a winner-takes-all, one-point, one-minute long speed round of epee. Double touch? Not in this version of epee; you must start over. Play to a draw? Nope, you both lose. Points are the name of the game; the more you win, the more points you accumulate. As a spectator, it’s hard to keep focused on just one of the five matches slashing away in front of you. The easiest way to track a winner is by the loud yells of success, jumping, and then respectful sword-saluting and handshakes that follow a victory.
After you’ve fenced through the entire field, and laid waste to all those lazy French guards, competitors move from the field house to the swimming pool. Once all the spectators are seated, our imaginary (and real) soldiers must swim across the river from the enemy camp, which turns out to be exactly four laps of an Olympic pool away–a tidy 200m. Three heats later, with more points awarded based on relative times (ranging from “good” to “swimming clearly isn’t this guy’s primary speciality”), the competitors suddenly realize that there are more guards ahead.
In what I can only assume was the inspiration for the original Royal Rumble, the Modern Pentathlon puts the lowest seeded athlete on the main piste back in the field house to face his opponent seeded one higher. (The bonus fencing round was supposed to be outside, but after the women’s competition the day before took place in 30°+ heat, they decided the 35°+ day for the men should maybe take advantage of “modern” air conditioning technology). Win? Stay and get a point. Lose? You’re out and the next highest seed moves in. Run out of time in this 45-second speed match? The higher seeded guy who just showed up wins the match, so you better be aggressive.
Finally done with the enemies in your way, and having accumulated some points for a few fencing wins in a row (the highest consecutive total for the day was eight bouts), you come across a clearing. Some farmer has left his horses out. Just what you need to get safely to your camp! And just what the audience needs to be thoroughly entertained. Most equestrians, especially at the international level, train for years with their horse. Ian Millar, the 10-time Olympic champion from Canada rode one horse, Big Ben, for 11 years. Modern Pentathlon uses a course that looks like any other show jumping course you’ve seen on CBC’s Sports Saturday or at the Royal Winter Fair. For Modern Pentathletes, however, they only see the course for the first time immediately before competing. They also don’t get a trial run. They also randomly draw their horses out of a hat. (Well, they draw a slip of paper that has a number on it that corresponds to a horse; drawing the actual horse out of a hat was deemed too complicated and cruel to the horses after the Munich games.) Athletes have 20 minutes to get familiar with their horses and hope like heck the horses are okay with some weirdo from Peru jumping on their back in the heat.
Garnett Stevens, one of two Canadians in the competition along with Josh Riker-Fox, won the equestrian portion of the event. He completed the course in the fastest time, after only knocking down one rail, suffering no time penalties, and showing up dressed properly. Yes, dressed properly. Jose Guitian of Panama was deducted 10 points (greater than the penalty for knocking down a rail) for “not wearing a hunting jacket”. It was 35 degrees and humid; I don’t blame the guy for opting for a windbreaker. Stevens’ win was made even more impressive by the fact that horse and rider both seemed interested in competing. Most athletes did not have the same simpatico-understanding with the great beasts. Several riders were almost bucked clear off of a horse that refused to jump. On one occasion the refusals were so forceful that after four attempts to get over a single jump with no success the rider was disqualified from the jumping event. Pentathlon has no time for the weak willed.
Assuming our intrepid cavalryman was as deft with the crop as young Stevens, and that the farmer’s hedgerows were successfully jumped, our rider believes he’s free and clear. The horse, weary from jumping in circles, has pulled up lame, and the solider finally has to dismount.
One might think that after discussing a series of sporting events and how one scores points while competing, that point totals will be how the winner is judged. You’d be wrong. In order to up the “wow” factor, Modern Pentathlon is decided by a 3200m run.
So you ask, why all the points?
The run portion, over a cross country route around the horse ring, has a staggered start. Points equate to time gaps between competitors. Our intrepid solider takes off as fast as his now aching feet can carry him. However, realizing that he’s being chased by some French soldiers who happened to recognize his fine Prussian threads, our hero decides it’s time to fight fire with fire.
And by fire, I mean lasers.
Much like the King of Winter Sports™, Biathlon, the run is interspersed by rounds of shooting, in this case every 800m. In the slightly-less-modern pentathlon, athletes would shoot air pistols. Now this weapon has been replaced with the Duck Hunt gun that must be reloaded between shots by lowering it to the shooter’s side. Athletes have to hit five targets (or reach the time limit of 50 seconds), and then can take off running.
This scenario played out in dramatic fashion in this year’s Pan-Am competition, where course leader Charles “Charlie” Fernandez of Guatemala, who set a World Record in the fencing portion of the event (282!), had trouble with his last round of targets. Struggling to find the fifth hit, he barely got out of the box before Ismael Uscanga Hernandez of Mexico, who shot cleanly, took off after him. As a result, the finish, after a day’s worth of ridiculous competitions, was decided by five seconds. Charlie ended up taking the gold medal, much to the delight of his fan base (yes Pentathletes have fan bases) in their custom printed “CHARLIE” t-shirts.
Successfully having defended himself against the French, and having run to safety, our intrepid solider can deliver his message and relax, his duty done.
The Modern Pentathlon is complicated. It’s more than just a grouping of antiquated skills (show jumping and epee), typical athletic pursuits (swimming and running), and training for the pending war of the robots (laser pistols). It’s an interesting cross-section of multi-sport athletes who somehow are able to not kill each other despite swords and horses and pistols. Most importantly it’s a great way to keep entertained for an entire day, as was evidenced by the great number of families who made up the sold-out crowd. Despite not being a hardcore fan of Modern Pentathlon’s component disciplines, a day at the Pan-Am Aquatic Centre has turned me into a lifelong fan of the sum its parts.
And it has turned me against Napoleon. Stupid Napoleon. Stay out of Belgium already!
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