The modern pentathlon is the only sport specifically invented for inclusion in the Olympic Games. The founder of the modern Games, Baron de Coubertin of France, created the modern pentathlon as an embodiment of everything demanded of a true Olympian: athleticism, strength, grace, finesse, and coordination. De Coubertin determined that this event would have five distinct components, which
In the ancient Olympics, the pentathlon was a significantly different competition. There were a series of events within each of the disciplines that formed the pentathlon contest. The three running events ranged from a sprint of approximately 200 yd (200 m) to a race of over 1 mi (1.5 km) in length. A jumping event, discus, and the javelin were included, as was an equestrian competition. Wrestling, boxing, and a primitive form of martial arts, pankration, were also included in the pentathlon at various times throughout the history of the ancient Olympics.
De Coubertin, who served as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1896 until 1925, was a staunch advocate of the event, believing it to symbolize the ideals of the ancient Games. De Coubertin was successful in securing the inclusion of the pentathlon into the Olympics of 1912, strictly as a men's competition, and it has remained an Olympic event since that time. A women's pentathlon was added in 1980. The disciplines that comprise the modern pentathlon are so disparate that few modern athletes embrace the sport, relative to the popularity of most other Olympic sports; the modern pentathlon is not contested with any public fanfare outside of each Olympic Games.
The five events of the pentathlon are contested in a single-day format. The opening event, the shooting competition, is conducted by way of each athlete firing a 4.5 mm air pistol at a stationary target positioned 11 yd (10 m) away. Twenty shots are fired at 20 targets during this period, and each shot is scored relative to the center of the target. The second pentathlon event is the epee fencing event, which is conducted as a round robin tournament; every athlete fights one fencing bout with every other athlete entered in the event. A victory in each segment of the round robin is counted toward the athlete's ultimate score.
Swimming is in many respects the most important part of the pentathlon competition, as the physical techniques essential to swimming success are usually acquired at a younger age than those that can be taught to an athlete in all other pentathlon disciplines. The swim is a 200-m freestyle event, and the time achieved by each competitor is scored on a ranking system. It is common for successful pentathletes to enter the sport from a competitive swimming background.
The equestrian portion of the pentathlon requires each horse and rider to negotiate a course with 15 jumps each 4 ft (1.2 m) in height, stationed at various intervals around a course that must measure between 350 m and 450 m in length. As with a regular Olympic equestrian event, a missed jump is subject to a deduction from the overall score of the athlete. Each athlete must compete on a horse randomly selected by the event organizers.
Unlike any other multi-sport event, the cross-country running portion of the pentathlon represents both a race and an opportunity to salvage victory or an improved placing through the manner in which the race is conducted. The cross-country race is handicapped based on the standing of the athletes in the first four events. A time for the 3,000-m course that is less than the established standard gives the athlete a points bonus. The runners leave the starting line in the order of their standing going into the final event, creating the visual incentive for the trailing athletes to catch the runners ahead of them.
It was the dream of de Coubertin to create the quintessential Olympic event through the modern pentathlon. There is no question that the pentathlon is a demanding discipline, due largely to the diverse events. The five events are a classic depiction of an athletic ideal; they are also a sporting eccentricity, especially in light of the relative rarity of equestrians, fencers, and target shooters to the bulk of the modern sporting population. The modern pentathlon is in many ways the ultimate cross training challenge, from the endurance and technique of swimming and running, to the rarefied skills necessary to succeed in the shooting, riding, and fencing events.