Modern Pentathlon: 100 Years in the Olympic Games, 1912-2012

By Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas
High Performance Director
USA Pentathlon

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 21. MODERN Pentathlon is an Olympic sport with rich traditions in many countries around the world. In 1912, pentathlon was introduced at the Olympic Games. Ever since, pentathlon has been and integral part of the Olympic family. Pentathlon includes five disciplines that test varying athletic skills: fencing, swimming, equestrian, shooting, and running. Following the 2008 Olympics, the shooting and running disciplines were been combined into a so-called combined event (see below). The pentathlon is conducted in one grueling day covering all five disciplines in about eight hours. After competing in one discipline, pentathletes have a short break, normally between 30 and 90 min. Due to the combination of physical qualities (swimming and running) and technical skills (fencing, horse riding, and shooting), elite pentathletes tend to be 8-10 years older than their elite swimming counterparts. The best pentathletes in the world are typically between 26 and 34. As with every sport, there are exceptions; but most pentathlon athletes at the elite level are post collegiate athletes.

Pentathlon competitions include semifinals, where athletes compete in four disciplines (no equestrian) during the first day, and finals, where athletes compete in all five disciplines after a rest day. Only the top 36 athletes advance into the finals; and, like swimming, start the finals like it is a stand-alone competition.

Fencing Discipline:

The pentathlon competition begins with the epee fencing discipline. Pentathletes fence every other competitor to a sudden death, one-touch bout. Because the sport was developed as the five skills for warriors, one touch is considered enough to win against opponent. This is why each athlete has 35 one-touch bouts at the finals, when there are 36 athletes competing in the competition. The duration of every bout is limited to one minute. But don't let that fool you, the action is extremely fast; and the energy expended is similar to a sprint for up to 60 seconds. If nobody wins after one minute, both athletes are scored with a defeat. Normally, the fencing discipline lasts around three hours during which time, the athlete's protective uniforms can easily reach sustained temperatures of over 120 degrees. It takes winning 70% of all bouts for an athlete to achieve 1000 points. Typically only one or two athletes will achieve this in any given competition. Every win or loss above or below 1,000 points results in 24 points. For example, if an athlete scored 2 victories below 1,000 points, he/she received 952 points in fencing discipline: 1,000 — (2 x 24) = 952.


The swimming discipline of the pentathlon is a 200-meter freestyle race. Most international competitions are held in 50-meter pools. Pentathlon rules allow competing in 25-meter pools, except at the Olympic Games and World Championships. For scoring purposes, swimming a time of 2 minutes and 30 sec over the 200-meter race gives athletes 1,000 points. Every second slower or faster than 2:30 results in plus or minus 12 points. In reality, men need to swim below 2:00 and women below 2:10 to stay competitive in this discipline with the top male and female athletes swimming 1:55 and 2:05 respectively. Remember, this race is after spending three hours in a fencing uniform while conducting 60 second sprints!


Organizers of every competition provide horses for athletes, so athletes neither own their own horse nor do they have long to adjust to their provided horse. Before the riding discipline, athletes draw for the horse they will ride. To get acquainted with their horse, pentathletes have only a 20 minute warm-up session immediately before entering the show jumping arena. They may take up to five warm-up jumps as part of their preparation. Pentathletes then ride a course of 15 jumps set to 4ft height with a maximum 4ft spread (depth). Riding without mistakes gives athletes 1,200 points. For each riding mistake, such as knockdown of the obstacle, refusal to jump, fall down from the horse, slower riding than the goal time and others, the pentathlete receives a penalty and a deduction from 1,200 points.

Combined Event:

The combined event is a discipline that includes pistol shooting and running. For this discipline, pentathletes shoot air pistols (identical to the ones used by Olympic shooters) converted into safer competition laser pistols. The end result is identical to shooting in both the appearance to spectators and the feel to the athlete. Laser shooting is the first ever so-called “green shooting technology”, which eliminates hazard waste, such as pellets or bullets. Due to the use of lasers instead of lead, the combined event can be organized in any facility, including big stadiums or the downtown of major metropolitan areas. It makes the sport very spectator-friendly, and it allows spectators to be very close to the athletes.

The combined event begins with a short run to the shooting station where athletes have to hit 5 targets as fast as possible. Each target is slightly larger than a quarter and must be shot from a distance of 10-meters (33ft) holding the gun with only one hand. After hitting all 5 targets, athletes run a 1,000-meter lap of a cross-country running course. Pentathletes repeat this two more times shooting 5 targets and running 1,000-meters each lap. Because the combined event includes both shooting and running, it gives athletes double points relative to the other disciplines. Athletes receive 2,000 points for the result of 12 min and 30 sec in the combined event. Every second faster or slower than this time results in 4 points.

Because the combined event is the final discipline in the pentathlon, athletes start handicapped in order of how they have performed with the previous three disciplines. The top athlete going into the combined event starts with the starting gun. All others start based on how far behind the leader they are. The result of this is that the athlete who crosses the finish line first is the winner of the entire pentathlon competition. Unlike its track and field cousin, the decathlon, that ends with point calculations to determine the winner, the pentathlon is concluded with sprints to the finish line and clear placement of the athletes.

Pentathlon in the United States:

Despite of 100+ years history, modern pentathlon is little known in the United States. It is more popular in Europe, Asia, and South America. In fact, pentathletes have been selected as national athletes of the year in a number of European countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Despite not having the public presence in the USA, one of the most famous Olympic pentathletes of all time was 1912 US Olympian Lt. George S. Patton.

Currently USA Pentathlon's national team trains at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs; but the athletes spend 80-100 days a year in Europe, Asia, and South America. To develop the sport of pentathlon in the United States, USA Pentathlon launched the program of Olympic Development Camps and regional competitions. Normally, they conduct four 5-day camps at the Olympic Training Center every year. Any athlete who is interested in trying this sport is invited to participate at the Olympic Development Camps. The next camp is scheduled on November 21-25.

USA Pentathlon events can be found on the website:

Youth Pentathlon in the United States:

Five regional competitions for Youth (18 and under) and Juniors (21 and under) are held around the country every year. The regions that host competitions are New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota/Wisconsin, California, and Pennsylvania. After regional competitions, young pentathletes compete at Youth and Junior National Championships, which are typically held at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Athletes gain ranking points at the regional competitions and National Championships to qualify for Youth and Junior World Championships that are held annually.

USA Pentathlon is looking for athletes who are talented and have the aptitude for multiple sports. Swimming is considered the foundation of success in pentathlon. Swimmers who can run fast and have talent to pick up new sports have a chance to be become elite level pentathletes. These athletes may have a chance to represent the USA in international competitions like the Youth World Championships, Junior World Championships, Senior World Cups, Senior World Championships, NORCECA (North and South America) Championships, and more. Athletes are invited to apply for Olympic Developmental Camps at USA Pentathlon website.

For information contact:
Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Pentathlon High Performance Manager or at (719) 321-6975

Comments Off on Modern Pentathlon: 100 Years in the Olympic Games, 1912-2012

Author: Archive Team


Current Swimming World Issue