NOT THOROUGHLY MODERN
by Mike Beamish, The Vancouver Sun, July 4, 1996
Pentathletes may be watching their sport go down the drain as Games keeps changing.: Pentathlon may on the way out
To deliver battle plans, the liaison officer must ride a horse over rough terrain, defend himself with a sword and pistol, swim across rivers and run swiftly to the battlefield. Arriving exhausted, soggy message in hand, he collapses at the feet of his commander, who probably mumbled, "I can't read this thing."
In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games and introduced in 1912 a sport that glorified the skills of the 19th century soldier: The noble sport of modern pentathlon.
Since military correspondence today is more likely sent by fax or modem, the term 'modern pentathlon' has become something of an oxymoron.
Plus, it's expensive. Pentathlon has no fan base in North America and it's as modern as a crank on a Model T. Detractors point to the bloated size of the Summer Olympics, which will have more than 10,000 competitors in Atlanta, and say that de Coubertin's brainchild should go the way of live pigeon shooting, the equestrian long jump, the plunge for distance and the swimming obstacle race. (By the way, Belgian Leon de Lunden bagged 21 birds to take the gold in live pigeon shooting in 1900, the only time animals were purposely killed in Olympic history).
Since its rebirth, the modern Games have been continually revamped, with new sports added and others dropped which have shown to be too obscure, bizarre or unpopular.
Sport, like everything else, must adapt to the times.
Thus, this summer in landlocked Atlanta, beach volleyball makes its debut as an Olympic medal event, along with women's softball, women's soccer, women's double-trap shooting, team synchronized swimming and mountain biking.
Four years from now, in Sydney, Australia, taekwondo and triathlon will be added.
In a development that set the sports world atwitter, the International Olympic Committee has granted provisional recognition to ballroom dancing and surfing. "Let's get ready to rumba!"
"Ballroom dancing? Give me a break," says Dean Billick, executive director of the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Association.
Okay, ballroom dancing as a sport is a difficult concept for some people to grasp. Anyway, what's the difference between dancing on hardwood and dancing on ice? Ice dancing, introduced to the Winter Olympics as recently as 1976, is thoroughly telegenic and among the highest rated sports for TV.
For the record, the IOC has taken the stance that sports will be axed or added according to their international popularity. If a sport is widely practised on every continent, it stays, which spells trouble for the TV-unfriendly, not-thoroughly modern pentathlon.
Though it is on the calendar for Atlanta and penciled in for Sydney, pentathlon officially is "under review." Several pentathletes met with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch after the '92 Olympics and asked how they could save their sport.
Four years ago, pentathlon was compressed from a five-day event to four days.
This summer, for the first time, pentathletes will have only one day -- actually, 12 hours, to fence, swim 300 metres, shoot four rounds with an air pistol, ride a 600-metre jumping course on an unfamiliar horse and run 4,000 metres. Coupled with Atlanta's heat and humidity, it's a half-day of torture far crueler than live pigeon shooting.
The number of competitors has been dropped from 88 to 32, the team event relay has been eliminated completely, and plans for a separate women's event have been put on hold.
In an effort to tone down the disparaging rhetoric of some IOC members, it has even been suggested that horse jumping be eliminated and replaced by something trendier, such as mountain biking.
This is heresy, say the traditionalists, and, besides, there is no guarantee that further changes to make the sport more palatable for television can save pentathlon from extinction.
"If modern pentathlon were removed from the Olympics, that basically could spell the end of the sport," says Frank Gosling, head of the Canadian Modern Pentathlon Association.
Action-film star Dolph Lundgren, who played a fictional East German athlete and produced the 1994 film Pentathlon, is lobbying hard to keep that from happening.
Earlier this month, Lundgren rode through Times Square on horseback to make a promotional appearance in New York for the imperilled event. The Swedish-born actor will go to Atlanta as team leader of the U.S. pentathlon team, an unofficial position which is sort of a cross between mascot, assistant coach and chaperone.
"If an athlete needs a pep talk or somebody has to carry the water bottles, I'll do it," says Lundgren, in a telephone interview from Sweden. "It's a chance to get away from acting and get in touch with some real people."
Lundgren is most remembered for his role as Ivan Drago, the robotic Russian fighter, in Rocky IV. In fact, though Lundgren cuts a hunky figure with his washboard belly and perfect pecs, Dolph's brain is as well-developed as his biceps. He holds a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney and in 1983 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A former captain of the Swedish national karate team, Lundgren was introduced to pentathlon in the movie of the same name.
Unlike the buffed-up professionalism of the new-wave Olympic 'extreme' sports, events which barely existed a dozen years ago, "there's a certain innocence about modern pentathlon," Lundgren says.
Part of the appeal is that it is not beholden to corporate sponsors, who decorate their competitors with logos as if they were Indy race cars.
"As the Olympics become more and more commercial, I think it's important to keep an event which remains true to the amateur ideal," Lundgren says. "The modern pentathlon is what the Games should be about. It's a test of the most versatile athlete of the Games. It's super-tough."
In the list of credits at the end of Pentathlon, Lundgren acknowledges "Olympic trainers and consultants whose expertise and experience helped make this film possible." Among them, is Anita DeFrantz, one of two IOC members from the United States.
Actually, DeFrantz admits she has never watched an entire modern pentathlon competition through to its completion, only the cross-country portion. Quite an admission, coming from an influential IOC executive board member, but then most people on this side of the Atlantic have a low pentathlon-awareness level.
"It's a tough sport, no question," DeFrantz says. "And there's a lot of history involved. But whether modern pentathlon will be on the schedule in Sydney, I couldn't tell you that."
Richard Pound, Canada's IOC executive board rep, dispels the notion that pentathlon faces cancellation because the sport doesn't project a good television image.
"A lot of Olympic sports aren't especially TV-friendly," Pound says. "But what was modern in 1908 or 1912 is not necessarily modern in 1996. For every sport we add, there are a dozen banging on the door, asking to get in. The bus is full right now. No one can get on, unless someone gets off."
The Hungarians, Poles, Swedes, Italians and Russians are usually top bets for the gold, although an American army lieutenant might have won the first event 84 years ago had he not been such a poor marksman. Ironic, considering that George Patton later wore trademark pearl-handled revolvers slung on his hips as a mythic World War II general.
The first non-military medallist came in 1952, when Sweden's Lars Hall won the gold, and many of today's pentathletes tend to be refugees from other sports.
For instance, Canadian men's champion Laurie Shong of Vancouver, more the male model than the military type, got his start in swimming. His coach Les Bogdan, a transplanted Hungarian, suggested Laurie graduate to modern pentathlon. To which he typically replied, "What's that?"
Shong joined a pony club in Maple Ridge and learned to ride. He was taught to fence in a Vancouver church basement at age seven. In fact, Laurie became such an accomplished swordsman that, four years ago in Barcelona, he represented Canada both in epee fencing and modern pentathlon. By so doing, he became the first Canadian to compete in separate sports in the same Summer Olympics.
Shong chose to pass up qualifying trials for pentathlon because of funding disagreements with the national association ("they did a number on me") and the lingering effects of a car accident. His right leg and kneecap had to be reconstructed three years ago.
True to the warrior spirit of his sport, he overcame all obstacles. As a result, the 4,000-metre run, once his weakest event, improved dramatically during months of forced rehab. Shong bounced back to win his third Canadian championship last year.
Only 25, his best pentathlon years are ahead of him, but Shong hopes he won't have peaked a decade too late.
"I'm going to do it for another four years," he says, "and see if pentathlon is still around."
Pentathlon has done everything the IOC has asked to enliven the sport and it still might not be enough. But if it goes, the Olympics will have lost more of its historic richness.
"In some ways, the pentathlon is more a test of all-around ability than the decathlon," says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, author of the Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. "It's an impressive thing -- five completely different events."
Modern pentathlon has as much a right to be in the Olympics, as, say, War and Peace has a right to be in the classics section at Duthie's.
If overcrowding in the Olympics is a problem, cut down on the badgers, flower girls, bureaucrats and hangers-on and let more athletes compete.