POSTED: August 11th 2011

JOHN GOODBODY: Questions raised about Modern Pentathlon laser shooting technology

Greenwich Park will host the Modern Pentathlon equestrian and shooting events / London 2012 rendering
Greenwich Park will host the Modern Pentathlon equestrian and shooting events / London 2012 rendering

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON: The sport of modern pentathlon holds a unique position on the Olympic programme.

It was introduced in 1912 at the request of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Games, against the opposition of several fellow members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Victory in the event rewards arguably the supreme all-round male and female competitors at the Olympics since triathlon just demands endurance at swimming, cycling and running and the decathlon (or heptathlon for women) is limited to one sport, athletics.

However, the modern pentathlon disciplines of fencing, swimming, riding, pistol shooting and cross-country running are very different, both physically and mentally.

The sport is based on the imaginary story of a messenger, who carries his general’s orders  on horseback, his horse is killed by an enemy, fights his way through with a sword and a pistol, swims a river and then runs on to deliver his message.

The sport has much to commend for the IOC.

All five activities are already on the Olympic programme and no new facilities have to be built for its sole use.

Only a total of 72 men and women take part, making it the sport with the smallest numbers of competitors, something that is attractive to the IOC because of its concern about restricting the size of the Games.

Yet, the continuing presence of modern pentathlon in the Games has been regularly threatened over the last 30 years.

It has had to adapt to make it more attractive to spectators and television and this it has done.

Whereas, once, it used to be held over five days (one sport on each of them), it has now been compressed into a single day, the swimming and running events have been slightly shortened and the running and shooting are now combined, so that the athlete has to interrupt a 2,000 metres cross-country course to hit five bulls-eyes before resuming the run.

The latest innovation has been to use laser instead of air pistols, to demonstrate how modern the sport is and to show its environmental credentials.

This change was forced through despite the world governing body failing to get the necessary two-thirds majority.

The problem is that at several leading events this summer, such as the European Championships, there have been question marks over the reliability of the equipment for the laser shooting

Problems seem to occur when the sun is shining directly on the technology.

Several competitors complained at both the recent World Cup event and at the European Championships in Britain that they were sure they had hit the bulls-eye only for their efforts not be registered.

With live ammunition, this would have have occurred. In the men’s semi-final of the European Championships, four competitors protested, including Britain’s Sam Weale, who described the event as a “lottery”.

When the women’s semi-final was held on a sunny afternoon the next day, the shooting was postponed to the evening to ensure that any possible controversy did not occur.

Klaus Schormann, the President of the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), has pledged that any problems, if they have occurred, will be addressed before the World Championships which begin in Moscow on September 8.

He accepts that there are “some serious issues” but believes they have been exaggerated and argues that the usual leading competitors from 2010 have been still prominent in 2011.

For the athletes’ sake, the integrity of the sport and for its place on the Olympic programme, it is vital that any problems are resolved.

The IOC will be watching these events carefully knowing that everything must be full-proof for 2012, otherwise the question of whether modern penathlon should remain part of the Games will be questioned once more.

And one thing is certain. Unlike all other sports on the Games programme, if modern pentathlon were to be excluded from the Olympics, it would die.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · John Goodbody · Modern Pentathlon · Olympic Games · Pierre de Coubertin · IOC

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