What is a Pentathlon?

Mary McMahon

A pentathlon is an athletic event in which competitors demonstrate their prowess in five disciplines. It was the foundation of the Ancient Greek Olympiad, and appears in a modernized form in the Olympic Games. Although the events in the classic and modern pentathlons are very different, both test the endurance and skill of the athlete, as well as demonstrating traits which would have been valuable for soldiers.

Wrestling was part of the Ancient Greek pentathlon, but not the modern pentathlon.
Wrestling was part of the Ancient Greek pentathlon, but not the modern pentathlon.

In the Ancient Greek pentathlon, athletes competed in a discus throw, javelin throw, long jump, sprint, and wrestling competition. The winner of the event would be crowned with a laurel wreath to recognize his superiority as an athlete, and the term “laurels” is still used to indicate a high honor earned through hard work. All of the athletes demonstrated their potential fitness as soldiers as well, showing that they had speed, accurate aim, and the ability to fight in close quarters. The winner of the pentathlon was considered to be the champion of the Olympiad.

A javelin throw was included in the ancient Greek pentathlon.
A javelin throw was included in the ancient Greek pentathlon.

The modern pentathlon features five totally different events. Both men and women participate in separate divisions, and the majority of contestants come from Europe and North America. The events in the modern pentathlon were developed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games. His pentathlon was designed to reflect the skills needed by 19th century members of the cavalry, and contrasting the events in the two pentathlons reveals a great deal about changes in European warfare.

Endurance training is a good idea for people looking to take part in a pentathlon.
Endurance training is a good idea for people looking to take part in a pentathlon.

In the modern pentathlon, the events are pistol shooting, épée sport fencing, swimming, show jumping, and cross country running. The diverse events demonstrate the variety of environments which soldiers had to cope with in the 1800s. A strong soldier was able to ride and jump successfully on a strange horse, run and swim to carry messages or escape if necessary, fence with an opponent, and aim a gun accurately. The modern pentathlon takes place over the period of one day, testing athletes to their limits.

Pentathlons include the long jump.
Pentathlons include the long jump.

Like other combination sports events, training for a pentathlon is hard work. The athlete must be able to achieve a high level of skill in multiple athletic disciplines, and must also learn to balance the needs of his or her body with the overall demands of the course. The popularity of the pentathlon has waned in recent years, but it is unlikely to vanish entirely, since it is such an important part of Olympic history.

Fencing is included as a sport in the pentathlon.
Fencing is included as a sport in the pentathlon.
The Ancient Greek pentathlon included a sprint.
The Ancient Greek pentathlon included a sprint.

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Discussion Comments

spanishInk

Modern Pentathletes have a great range of skills, doing all of these in one day must be utterly exhausting.

On Discovery there was a show called "Last Man Standing" in where they took athletes of different disciplines and pitted them against athletes from tribes renowned for a particular sport or game (foot-fighting, spear-throwing etc.) the pentathlete was almost always the winner, otherwise ranked second.

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