The ancient pentathlon, contested in the first Olympic games over two millennia ago, could be dangerous. Consisting of five events, the ancient sport was designed to mimic the tasks a soldier might be required to do in battle: run, jump, throw a javelin and discus, and, of course, wrestle.
Wrestling, though, in this context, wasn’t just two guys in leotards on a mat. It was—though some accounts differ—the type of Greek wrestling known as pankration, a brutal open-ended battle with few rules that often ended in serious injury or death.
But with that risk came, potentially, fame; compared to its modern counterpart, winning the ancient competition was hugely prestigious, since it was seen as the peak of human athletic achievement.
And yet, these days, champion pentathletes couldn’t be more anonymous, while the sport itself is just trying to hang on, a bizarre and quiet denouement for the modern equivalent of that ancient epic. The modern pentathlon was always a direct, if slightly romantic gesture to the past. The only question for now is how much longer that gesture will remain.
Part of the reason the modern pentathlon struggles to draw a crowd is that it is built around five disciplines that are hardly spectator sports: fencing, show jumping, shooting, swimming, and running. The ancient version, too, included events—discus and javelin—that aren’t exactly riveting, but it also benefited from scarcity, as the ancient Olympics had just a handful of events, mainly just running and chariot racing, while this year in Rio de Janeiro there are 41 other sports asking for your attention.
The modern pentathlon also suffers from what you might call an origin problem. It has no reason to exist, other than that Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, thought it should. Like its predecessor, Coubertin made the modern version based on military tasks, in this case, a calvary officer who might be expected to, at some point in the course of his work, run, swim, shoot, sword fight, and command an unknown horse. (Competitors are only assigned a random horse 20 minutes before competition is to begin.)
The idea, Coubertin said, was to produce the “ideal, complete athlete,” or at least someone capable of being a highly-functioning soldier.
And, initially, it was a sport dominated by military officers themselves. It was first contested at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where future World War II General George S. Patton, representing the U.S. Army, was among those competing.
Patton’s biggest challengers were Swedes, who not only enjoyed home-field advantage but also dominated the sport in the early decades.
And in its first year, Patton, a 26-year-old lieutenant, gave them a show. Competing against 41 other military officers, Patton began with the first event, shooting. But unlike the rest of the competitors, who used .22-caliber guns, Patton chose to use a larger .38-caliber weapon, shooting and, he thought, hitting a stationary target 20 times. But when judges checked, they found only 17 holes. Patton’s explanation? Three bullets clearly went through the target’s holes without making a mark of their own.
But the judges didn’t buy it, and Patton finished 21st in that portion of the competition. He did better with the four other disciplines, in the end passing out from exertion after running 2.5 miles. When he came to, he was told the final results: Patton had recovered to finish fifth (three Swedes took each of the medal places).
That Patton came close to sniffing a medal at all was its own kind of achievement. Sweden won 11 of the first 12 medals handed out for the modern pentathlon, and it wasn’t until a German in 1928 won bronze that any non-Swedish athlete stepped on to the podium. And while in the ensuing years the event’s appeal for other countries widened considerably—Hungarians dominated most of the ’60s and early ’70s—modern pentathlon remained an oddity on the Olympic schedule, neither a reliable draw or an interesting competition to watch.
That hasn’t been for lack of trying, though, as the sport has evolved continually since its debut. Though it still uses the same five skills, real guns are no longer used, for example, and the distances for the running and swimming portions of the event have been modified. It’s also been compressed into three days, instead of what started as five.
The competition will open this year on Thursday, August 18, in Rio de Janeiro, to conclude Aug. 20, meaning, of course, that for now, it’s still an Olympic event, though officials have continually threatened to drop it, along with things like dressage and synchronized swimming.
Modern pentathlon’s advocates, though, at least have Aristotle on their sides. Around 2,500 years ago, in Rhetoric, he wrote that ”pentathletes have the most beautiful bodies, because they are constructed for strength and speed together.”