The women's pentathlon is a part of a continuum of multi-event competitions, the roots of which extend to the athletic traditions of the ancient Greeks. Pentathlon is the Greek word for a five-part competition, and in ancient times, the pentathlon was often used by Greek governments to assess the potential of men for military service.
The ancient pentathlon blended strength, speed, and agility. The five events were a short footrace (the distances varied depending on the place of the competition), wrestling, a long jump in which the athlete was weighted down, the javelin throw, and the discus. As with all athletic events at that time, the contest was restricted to men.
The pentathlon for women was first introduced into the Summer Olympic Games in 1964. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had been slow to add women's events to the Olympic Games; there was a lingering belief that women could not physically perform certain strength and endurance sports. In 1964, the women's pentathlon had the requisite five events, but with a different focus; the events were conducted over a two-day period, with the first three events contested on the first day, the remaining events the next day. The first women's pentathlon included 80-m hurdles, the shot put, the high jump, the long jump, and the 200-m sprint.
Preparation for the pentathlon is a variation of the cross training principles employed by athletes in many sports, with less emphasis on endurance training than would be a part of a triathlon or a decathlon program. Explosive muscular movement, such as is developed through interval sprints and plyometrics training, as well as the flexibility and agility required for the high jump and the long jump are crucial. Shot put training is a further extension of muscle power and the coordinated approach required to combine technique and strength.
The women's pentathlon was included in the Summer Olympics from 1964 to 1980. In the era of the political Cold War that existed between Western nations and the Soviet Union-led Eastern Bloc, success in the pentathlon was primarily with the Eastern Bloc nations; their athletes captured 10 of the 15 medals awarded during the time period that the women's pentathlon was an Olympic event. As with many of the sports that did not enjoy a high profile in Western nations—of which the hammer throw, a traditional field event, and team sports such as handball, are examples—the Eastern Bloc nations and their state-based, systematic approaches to athletic training targeted the women's pentathlon as one where success could be achieved on the Olympic stage.
Due to increasing demands from many nations within the Olympic movement to have consistency and equality between all male and female sporting competitions, not only in the quantity of the events, but also in the maintenance of the balance between running and field events, the women's pentathlon was replaced in 1984 by the heptathlon, an expanded version of the women's pentathlon. The transition from the pentathlon to the heptathlon (a seven-event, two-day discipline) was generally welcomed, as the heptathlon presented greater athletic challenges for the female competitors. Yet there remained critics of the IOC who argued that the only proper female multi-sport event should be a female decathlon to create prefect symmetry between the male and female competitions.
The women's pentathlon is now something of a historical footnote, a bridge in the history of women's athletics at the Olympics between the days of limited female participation and a far broader range of women's events. The women's pentathlon was the first multi-sport women's event to be included in the Olympic Games. The 1984 Olympics were also significant in this respect for the inclusion of the marathon as a women's event for the first time.
Since 1912, another pentathlon event had been contested at the Summer Olympics, the modern pentathlon. This five-event discipline, comprised of pistol shooting, fencing or epee, swimming, equestrian (horse) jumping, and cross-country running, was a designated men's event until 2000, when the IOC created a women's modern pentathlon competition. To further involve multi-sport competitions in the Olympics, the IOC added the triathlon for both men and women in 2000.
The women's pentathlon has not disappeared as an international athletic competition. The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) sanctions the heptathlon as a women's world championship event, and the pentathlon is the equivalent indoor track and field championship, typically during in the winter track and field season. The IAAF pentathlon was introduced at the world indoor track and field championships in 1993, with the 60-m sprint, 800-m run, high jump, long jump, and shot put as the constituent elements. The IAAF standard pentathlon is also a national indoor track and field championship in many countries, and in collegiate competition such as the American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).