The History of Modern Pentathlon

The Ancient Games

Pentathlon was introduced for the first time at the 18th Olympiad in 708 BC, probably by the Spartans as a method of training soldiers. It consisted of running the length of the stadium, jumping, throwing the spear, throwing the discus and wrestling. Pentathlon held a position of unique importance in the Games and was considered to be the climax, with the winner ranked as "Victor Ludorum”.

Admiration for the ancient pentathlon was shared by the founder of the Modern Olympic Movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who expressed his support for the concept of a pentathlon most eloquently and forcefully in his Memoires Olympiques, published in 1931. From 1909, he tried to have the event introduced into the Olympic programme and, after two failed attempts, pentathlon's moment came at the 14th session of the International Olympic Committee in Budapest in 1911.

The Introduction of Modern Pentathlon

Modern pentathlon, introduced at the 5th Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912, embraced the spirit of its ancient counterpart. It comprised the contemporary sports of pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running. It was de Coubertin's belief that it would be the event, above all others, that tested a man's moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete.

The choice of the five diverse and unrelated sports that make up modern pentathlon arose out of the romantic, tough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse was brought down in enemy territory. Having defended himself with his pistol and sword, he swam across a raging river and delivered the message on foot. Not surprisingly, it was the military who most enthusiastically adopted this new sport with its inherent demands of courage, co-ordination, physical fitness, self-discipline and flexibility in ever changing circumstances. A young American Lieutenant, later to be the famous Second World War General George S. Patton, was to finish fifth in the first ever Olympic modern pentathlon competition and, for many years, modern pentathlon was used as part of the final examinations at a number of European Military Academies. 

The mixture of physical and mental skills demanded in modern pentathlon has also meant that athletes are able to compete in as many as three or four Olympic Games. This is because, whilst running and swimming times can be expected to decline with age, experience and skill in the technical disciplines often increase. The oldest Olympic gold medallist in the Modern Pentathlon to date is the Russian Pavel Lednev, who was 37 years old at the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Governance of Modern Pentathlon

Until 1948 modern pentathlon was administered directly by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Since then, it has been administered by the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), which was founded by Gustaf Dryssen (1920 Olympic Champion) from Sweden as its first President, with Sven Thofelt (1928 Olympic Champion) as its Secretary General, and later to be President for 28 years.

In 1960, biathlon (cross country skiing and rifle shooting) was introduced in the Olympic Programme and joined the Union which thereafter became the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne and Biathlon (UIPMB). In 1993, an agreement was made to retain the Union as an umbrella body under which the UIPM and the International Biathlon Union (IBU) could act autonomously. The UIPM, however, continued to be the only international multi-sport organisation recognised by the IOC until triathlon was introduced the Olympics.