2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Friday July 13, 2012 5:23PM ; Updated: Tuesday July 24, 2012 10:34PM
David Epstein
David Epstein>INSIDE MODERN PENTATHLON

Modern pentathlon preview

Story Highlights

Olympic modern pentathlon combines shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding

Russia has top three ranked men in world; U.K. women could be podium-bound

U.S.' Margaux Isaksen is ranked only 40th, but she's recovering from mono

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Margaux Isaksen
Arkansas-native Margaux Isaksen took first in modern pentathlon at the 2011 Pan American Games.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images

First things first: the modern pentathlon is the most recondite of Olympic sports. (That's saying something, considering the Games has trampoline and dressage.) In fact, you probably had no idea that the modern pentathlon won't be a pentathlon at all in London. In 2009, in an effort to boost its popularity and avoid banishment from the Olympics -- again, saying something, since it's the lone sport created specifically for the Olympics by Pierre de Coubertin -- modern pentathlon became a quadrathlon.

SPORTS EXPLAINERS: MODERN PENTATHLON

Sort of. Between 1912 and '09, modern pentathletes had to shoot a pistol, fence with épée swords, freestyle swim 200 or 300 meters, ride a horse that is unknown to them through a showjumping course and cross-country run 3,000 or 4,000 meters. The sport had a tendency to unfold at Kabuki-theater pace. In Beijing, the women's competition took place at three different venues over 12 hours. Hence, in London, the shooting and running will be combined. So now the final event of the modern pentathlon will be running interspersed with shooting, sort of like biathlon in the winter Olympics (cross-country skiing and shooting) where the athletes have to shoot while trying to catch their breath.

Athletes To Watch

Men

Russia, Russia, Russia: The top three ranked men in the world are Russians: Aleksander Lesun, Andrei Moiseev and Ilia Frolov. Lesun and Moiseev also went one-two at the world championships in Italy in May. Both men earned the only perfect scores (1,000 points) in fencing in the entire competition. (Fencing in the pentathlon: each competitor faces every other competitor once, and the first person to score a touch wins. Any competitor who wins at least 70 percent of his bouts earns 1,000 points. Every loss that drags an athlete below 70 percent deducts 24 points.) Moiseev won gold in the last two Olympics, and probably enters London as the man to beat. If Moiseev wins again, he'll join an elite group of about two dozen athletes who have won gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics. Only Americans Carl Lewis (long jump), and Al Oerter (discus) have won four straight.

Women

Mhairi Spence, Scotland: As a Scot, and thus a member of the British team, Spence will enter the Games on home turf ranked third in the world. Spence nearly quit the sport in '09, but it's a good thing she didn't, as she seems to have taken extremely well to the combined running and shooting that was implemented that year. It was in the final stretch of the run-and-shoot at the world championships in May that she overtook three-time world champ Amelie Caze of France to win the world title. "I could see Caze just there," Spence said afterward. "I thought of all the painful running I did in the past six months."

U.S. Prospects

Men

Modern pentathlon is not a strong spot in the U.S. Olympic portfolio. The U.S. has never won a gold medal in modern pentathlon, and no American man has won an individual Olympic pentathlon medal since 1960. (The U.S. won a team silver in 1984, but the team event was discontinued after the '92 Games.) Only one American man, U.S. Army Spc. Dennis Bowsher has qualified to represent the U.S. in London, and he is ranked 44th in the world. So it is likely that the U.S. will push the medal drought to 52 years on the men's side. Bowsher, like most modern pentathletes who aren't from eastern European countries, fell into the sport on a whim; he saw a flyer advertising modern pentathlon while competing at a swim meet in high school in Dallas. Bowsher is a strong swimmer, and currently he's a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program living at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.

Women

Women have only competed in modern pentathlon since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In that competition, American Emily deRiel took silver. The U.S. has not won a medal since. But, this year, there's hope. Arkansas-native Margaux Isaksen finished 21st in Beijing when she was just 16, and the 20-year-old has improved since then, winning the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Isaksen seems tailor-made for pentathlon. She had her first fall from a horse at age three and got into fencing as a teenager when her sister, Isabella, started fencing. So she began the two most technical aspects of pentathlon early, and then added formal training in running, swimming and shooting just about two years before competing at the international level in pentathlon. If she keeps improving, Isaksen has the potential to be great for a long time to come.

Underdog Tale

American Margaux Isaksen, again, and not just because, at 20-years-old, she'll be far younger than most of her competitors. Isaksen struggled mightily through most of this season as she fought a case of mononucleosis. Thus, Isaksen is only ranked 40th heading into the Olympics. But her most recent competition suggests that she finally got over the hump in her recovery. In June, she competed at the $130,000 Kremlin Cup in Moscow against 23 of the world's top pentathletes, most of whom are ranked ahead of her. Isaksen was in third going into the final lap of the running/shorting portion, but "her conditioning is not quite ready," said Janusz Peciak, Isaksen's coach. She still finished one spot ahead of Ukraine's Victoria Tereshuk, who is ranked fourth in the world and is a legitimate medal contender.

Matchup To Watch

The British women, Mhairi Spence and Samantha Murray, versus the world

Spence and Murray are ranked third and 10th in the world, respectively, but were first and third at the world championships in May. Women's modern pentathlon will conclude after 6 p.m. London time on Aug. 12, meaning that it will provide the very last medalists of the entire Olympics. With two British women capable of medaling, we could see a scenario where -- with all other sports concluded -- all eyes turn to the run-and-shoot in Greenwich Park to see whether the Brits can cap their home Games with a medal or two. As obscure as modern pentathlon is, you can bet it will produce national headlines in England if Spence or Murray can charge home to gold for the last act of the London Olympics.

Fun Facts

-de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, created pentathlon so that soldiers from different countries could come together somewhere other than the battlefield. As such, some prominent military figures have competed in the sport, including U.S. General George S. Patton. Patton finished fifth in the first modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics. Patton trained for the Games on a diet of raw steak and salad, and took an injection of opium before the running portion. Patton's weak spot, interestingly, was shooting, though he argued that one of his bullets did not mark the target because it passed through a hole that had already been made by a previous bullet.

-Sweden's Johan Oxenstierna almost missed the 1932 competition in Los Angeles when a policeman nearly arrested him for taking practice shots in the woods. Oxenstierna went on to win the gold. Later, during World War II, he was the Swedish naval attaché in London and was suspected of passing military intelligence to Germany.

-Modern pentathlon produced the biggest scandal of the 1976 Games in Montreal when Soviet army Major Boris Onishchenko was caught using an épée wired to a circuit breaker that allowed him to score a touch without ever touching his opponents.

Gold Medal Dates

Aug. 11: Men

Aug. 12: Women

 
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