Friday, August 22, 2008

The absolute nuttiest Olympic sport: an introduction

(Note: This flurry of Olympics-related posting will, of course, subside as the event comes to a close, at which time I'll return to writing about more appropriately nerdy subjects.)

Quick - name an Olympic competition that you would dub indicative of "true Olympic sport" or that you might describe as the "sport that most accurately conveys the ideals of Olympism." One that the International Olympic Committee has described as having "a long and distinguished history" which is "steeped in culture and cultivated in the Olympic spirit".

Did you guess wrestling? Or something in track and field? A team sport, maybe? Because you sure as hell didn't guess modern pentathlon, right?

I refer to modern pentathlon as the "nuttiest" Olympic sport with good reason. It combines a long-distance cross-country race, a short swim - and now it gets a bit weird - pistol shotting, epee fencing, and show-jumping. (Yes, the kind that you do with horses. And, in this event, with randomly chosen horses that you've never met, much less ridden before.) The combination seems bizarre and pointless now, although it was meant to seem relevant when it was first created about a hundred years ago: Baron Pierre de Courertin designed it to "simulate the experience of a 19th century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines". So extra nuttiness points for the origin and the fact that this "modern" event is already two centuries outdated. Anachronisms of this sort are actually a bit endearing when only the hot-ticket event ever get broadcast on TV and every athlete with legitimate medal aspirations has at least three corporate sponsors.

Modern pentathlon is also actually far more dramatic than the other multi-talent events, like the triathlon, "traditional" pentathlon, decathlon, or gymnastics' all-around competition. Where those events rely entirely on counting points, the points for the first four events of the modern pentathlon are translated into seconds and applied to the 3km cross-country run, where the leader starts by him/herself and the others are staggered according to how far they trailed the leader. And with those adjustments made, it's simply a matter of the first person to cross the finish line winning. And it's all done in one day, too, which sounds more like an elementary school track-meet or carnival day - or an episode of American Gladiators - than an Olympic event.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to knock the sport. If it sounds unreasonable to expect someone with little chance of sponsorship money to waste their time with modern pentathlon, then it should come as no surprise that the CBC describes it as "the domain of the idle rich", noting that "elitist overtones have prevented it from gaining widespread popularity", especially outside of Europe. And while the athletes must be competently skilled at a number of disparate disciplines, they rarely excel at any single one. As Frank Gosling, past president of Modern Pentathlon Canada, explains: "There are lots of people who aren't quite good enough to qualify for the Olympics in those events [swimming and running, from which modern pentathletes are often recruited], but if we can teach them to ride or fence or shoot, then they have a chance to go to the Olympics as a pentathlete." So it sounds like you need a bit of athleticism and a lot of free time. And lastly, it remains open to the charge that it's simply a stupid game and/or no longer relevant - even more so than events like equestrian or the discus, which at least have a long history on their side.

Interestingly, there's been some noise among athletes and organizers to remove that most elitist and least athletic element - the show-jumping - and replace it with mountain-biking. (Naturally, there's also a lot of resistance to any change at all.) But why stop there? Why not continue to honor the spirit in which it was created, and reimagine it as a showcase for the talents that a 21st century soldier caught behind enemy lines would have to employ? (If I made my own list, I'd have to fight the urge to veer into something hopelessly ironic and/or mocking, so I'll simply leave the question open.)


bellatrys said...

least athletic element - the show-jumping

Heh. Let me make a wild guess and say you've never ridden, let alone jumped. Equitation will make you aware - "to the pain" - that there are wayyyyy more muscles in the human body than they taught us about in school (unless you took premed.) It's kind of like snowboarding when it comes to the balance/dexterity aspect of it, only you're also using the same muscles you use when you're cycling, to make your legs into shock-absorbers, and you're supporting your upper body weight while you stand bent over b/c most of the time you can't lean on your horse's neck like handlebars - and you're crunching your legs tight around your horse's barrel to support and steer as well as maintaining a constant tension with your hands and arms - on a platform whose pieces are all moving in different directions along a varying and somewhat variable pathway in all four dimensions.

And mountain bikes don't sometimes decide that hellno, I can't jump that without hurting myself, and come to a full-stop on their own, or conversely get over-exaggerated senses of what they're capable of, and crash as a result of trying to do something they're not ready for, or from arguing with the cyclist...

neilshyminsky said...

bellatrys: True enough. I should qualify what I mean by 'athletic'. I mean to say that equestrian is "unathletic" in the same sense that driving a race car is unathletic - that it is inarguably a physical feat, but that it is also largely dependent on your equipment/animal, which is a factor that is largely out of the rider's control. So my boorish use of the word "unathletic" was meant to differentiate between Olympic "Athletics", which are wholly dependent on the athletes' bodies, and an event like equestrian which the athlete's body is not even the most important body in competition.