A century after Pierre de Coubertin introduced modern pentathlon to the Olympic Games, athletes will line up laser guns as the sport parades its latest look.
The closing event of the London games schedule, the pentathlon will conclude a 20-year modernization that has pared what was once a five-day event into a single day. For the first time at the Olympics, the athletes will replace lead pellets with lasers in a combined shoot-and-run to the finish line.
“It’s a definitive step forward into the 21st century,” Jan Bartu, performance director at U.K. governing body Pentathlon GB, said in an interview. “Obviously there is this 100-year legacy and Pierre de Coubertin’s idea, which is a massive thing. When you start modifying the original format, you have to make sure the idea lives on.”
The pentathlon of the Games in Ancient Greece included running, jumping, spear and discus throwing and wrestling. The selection of sports for the modern version was based on the legend of a military officer sent to deliver a message, a mission that required shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian and running. According to de Coubertin, the event was intended to test “a man’s moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby a complete athlete.”
In its debut at the 1912 Stockholm games, the modern pentathlon attracted 32 men from 10 countries including General George Patton, who as a then-lieutenant placed fifth. Women entered for the first time at the Sydney games in 2000. Thirty-six men and 36 women are taking part in London.
Although the transition to a one-day format happened in the 1990s, further efforts to make the sport more visible and attractive to younger athletes and audiences began about 10 years ago, according to Klaus Schormann, president of the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne, the sport’s governing body.
“Pentathlon is now an Olympic sport with the highest technology,” Schormann said in a telephone interview. “To play in the legacy of Coubertin after 100 years is a very special feeling. The sport is still alive and modernized.”
The first major change was the introduction of the combined shoot-and-run in 2009, where athletes repeat a cycle of shooting five targets and running 1,000 meters (3,280-feet) three times. Laser shooting made its adult debut in February 2011.
“Initially I was a little bit against it,” British Olympic pentathlete Sam Weale, 30, said of the move away from pellet-firing air pistols. “There is too much emphasis on speed and not enough on precision, but it’s added something to the sport as a spectacle, made it more unique and more exciting.”
Still, the switch to lasers wasn’t without problems.
Early events were plagued by complaints that hits weren’t being registered correctly, according to Sebastien Floure, general manager of Biscarrosse, France-based Simpower, which is providing the targets for the pentathlon in London.
“The federation was changing to laser too fast, one year to purge all the issues,” Floure said in an interview. “This is why we didn’t want to jump into the market right away.”
The 38 targets, which are each worth about 1,000 euros ($1,230) take four people about two hours to set up along with network connections. They provide immediate results on the success of the shot, Floure said. Pentathletes are allowed an unlimited number of shots within a 70-second span.
“Even if you’re sitting in grandstands you can see what’s going on,” Bartu said. “It’s a pioneering step in terms of competing. The Olympics in London has massive potential in the presentation of the sport and the feedback to the viewers will be much better.”
The athletes are being given access to the official competition ground for the riding and combined event in Greenwich Park for the first time today. The fencing and swimming will take place in the Olympic park in east London.
Lasers have helped make the sport more accessible because television cameras and spectators can get closer to the action, according to Joel Bouzou, secretary general of the Monaco-based UIPM. TV audiences and visits to the organization’s website have “really increased,” he said, without providing details.
The sport’s major sponsors are Deutsche Lufthansa AG, New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc., Speedo International Ltd. and Ram Swiss Watch AG.
The leading men’s medal contenders include Russia’s Aleksander Lesun and two-time defending Olympic champion Andrei Moiseev, who hold the top two spots in the world rankings. Lithuania’s Laura Asadauskaite and Lena Schoneborn from Germany are the top-ranked women.
Regardless of the eventual winners, being the final Olympic competition “will be a great promotion for the sport,” said Schormann. The women’s shoot-and-run is scheduled to be the last event to finish before the closing ceremony on Aug. 12. The men’s pentathlon takes place the day before.
With major changes to the sport complete, it’s over to the pentathletes to showcase them in the Olympics spotlight.
“It’s a new era,” Bouzou said. “There is more prize money coming in and that’s useful, so we’re going in the right direction. Now the combined event with laser shooting is crowning 20 years of evolution.”