Modern pentathlon fights for attention despite Olympic status

Monday, May 13, 2013

GUELPH, ONT.–Melanie McCann was 15 when a school teacher discovered she was a talented swimmer and runner. She still remembers his opening line: “Do you want to learn how to stab someone and shoot a gun?”

“Of course I said ‘sure.’ “

Indeed, with a pitch like that it’s a wonder modern pentathlon isn’t more popular in Canada. But with fewer than 300 people participating in this sport – from the recreational level up to the nation’s Olympians – you’re unlikely to come across Modern P (as those in the know call it) at your local rec centre.

McCann, from Mount Carmel, Ont., is Canada’s best in a sport the International Olympic Committee saved from being cast out of the 2020 Games. Wrestling, one of the original Olympic sports, got the boot instead in February.

It was a shocking move, particularly to the vast majority of Canadians who know about the nation’s wrestling success but can’t even name the five modern pentathlon events: fencing, swimming, show jumping, running and shooting.

To its critics, the sport is antiquated, based on the skills a 19th-century soldier would have needed to survive behind enemy lines. To supporters, it’s the ultimate sporting challenge that requires an intriguing mix of mental and physical strength and identifies the best all-round athletes.

Modern pentathlon was created specifically for the Olympics in 1912 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Games in 1896. It was set up as a mental and physical test for serving soldiers – including George S. Patton, who finished fifth (let down by his shooting, of all things) as an inaugural competitor long before he became a four-star U.S. general. Women couldn’t compete in the Olympic version until 2000 in Sydney.

But fighting for relevancy, ratings and, most important of all, to stay in the Olympic family, modern pentathlon has changed quite a bit since the Baron’s days.

  • It’s contested in one day now, instead of a leisurely five.
  • Guns were replaced by air pistols firing pellets and now, at the elite level, laser pistols – more in line with societies where kids are raised on video games and aren’t keen on handling guns.
  • Laser pistols are supposed to be easier to transport, too, but many pentathletes on the international circuit tell horror stories about airport security tearing through their luggage.
  • Running and shooting were combined into one event for the London Olympics, to make it more audience friendly, and the complicated scoring system – men’s gold in London was won by David Svoboda of the Czech Republic with 5,928 points – all happens behind the scenes now.
  • The start order for the final run/shoot portion is determined by the standings to that point, so the first one across the finish line is the champion.

But as much as proponents pitch this as an exciting sport, it hasn’t grown in Canada.

The Ontario provincial championships were held in Guelph on May 5, a warm, sunny Sunday with two Olympians on hand: McCann and Toronto’s Donna Vakalis before a small crowd of family and friends.

“It’s one of those sports that flies below the radar,” John Hawes, McCann’s head coach, has said. “If you go on the street and ask your average person ‘What’s Modern P?’ they’ll say, ‘Not really sure.’ “

In the pool at provincials, Vakalis led through three laps of the 25-metre pool. Then national teammate McCann kicked into gear. In the end, McCann, 23, won by half a pool length.

The truth is that even at an event of this magnitude, neither of these elite athletes was going flat out. Modern pentathlon is such an underdeveloped sport in Canada that the competition felt more like a community fun day.

“Everybody make your gun safe,” said the official running the youth shooting range. “If you don’t know what that means, put your hand up.”

Modern pentathlon competitions in Canada are more about growing the sport and encouraging people to give it a try than determining who’s first, second and third. Here, 34 athletes ran the gamut from 6-year-old Emmy Watterson, who needed dad’s help to hold up her heavy air pistol, to Howard Simmons, who would only admit to being “over 70.” He started training because his daughter was involved and joining in seemed better than waiting around for her.

To get any real competition, McCann and Vakalis have to compete on the World Cup circuit against athletes from Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other European powerhouses.

McCann’s 11th-place finish in London was Canada’s top Olympic result in the sport – ever. We did once have a world champion, Lynn Chornobrywy, but that was in 1983, long before female pentathletes were allowed in the Games.

Officials say interest in modern pentathlon is growing globally, with athletes from Brazil, Australia and Britain atop the women’s rankings. But there are only some 2,000 modern pentathletes worldwide, about 500 competing at the World Cup level, according to the sport’s federation.

The very thing competitors say makes the sport great – five disciplines combined – makes it time-consuming and expensive to learn.

When McCann started, she had long been a competitive swimmer and runner but had never ridden a horse, fired a gun or held a sword (pentathletes cringe at that word, preferring epee). Now, she has four coaches and pays fees at five sports clubs.

“Money is always one of the issues,” she said. “My parents are great supporters of my career.”

Time is an issue, too. Most high-performance athletes spend their career perfecting just one thing. Here, there are five distinct events to master.

It takes time – especially for someone such as McCann, who wasn’t raised around horses – to become confident enough to ride a show jumping horse with little familiarity. And shooting bulls-eyes takes not only a marksman’s skills, but the ability to calm down quickly after racing 800 metres.

“Sometimes you feel like a superhero or a secret agent,” said McCann.

Mostly, she just feels overscheduled. Time management and not falling into the trap of overtraining for one event to the detriment of the others are important skills.

McCann only swam at provincials. The training program that dictates everything in her life right now is all about building for the worlds and the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she hopes to find the 100 or so points that kept her from a podium finish in London. She thinks success is the best cure for her sport in Canada.

“It’s not like we have any Olympic medals or (stars) that people around the country would know,” she said. “Maybe I can change that.”

Toronto Star - Kerry Gillespie, Sports Reporter

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