This year’s modern pentathlon involves laser guns, combines running and shooting

Andrew Bucholtz

The modern pentathlon will get a bit futuristic at this year's Olympics. London 2012 will be the first Games to replace the traditional air pistols with the laser guns brought into worldwide modern pentathlon events in 2011, and it will also be the first Olympics where the five-sport event is held under new rules implemented in 2009 that combine the running and shooting portions. Canadian competitor Donna Vakalis told The Toronto Star's Josh Tapper that amalgamating the running and shooting events in particular poses some new challenges for the athletes:

"It's very much a mental game, but it's also a physical game now," said Vakalis, who will be joined in London by Melanie McCann.

"Your heart is racing. You kind of want to heave and breathe and take in as much oxygen as you can. You can't allow yourself to do that. You just have to keep your breath on a steady rhythm and hold your breath with each shot."

Modern pentathlon hasn't always been the biggest draw for Olympic viewers, but the changes might help improve its popularity. Sure, laser guns are cool, but it's the combination of running and shooting that might make this event particularly fun to watch. Rather than holding those competitions separately, athletes will now shoot five targets, then run 1,000 metres, then shoot another five targets, then run another 1,000 metres, then shoot a final five targets, then run 1,000 metres further. It's not about hitting targets dead centre, but about hitting five in quick succession so you can start your run; however, despite the new, pricey laser guns (Vakalis' cost $2,725), the sport still requires the detailed reloading procedure used with the old air pistols, so it's not just blasting away.

The best shooters have the shoot and reload cycle down pat and can and hit all five targets in about 30 seconds, potentially giving them a 40-second advantage over the worst shooters in every shooting round (as athletes are allowed to start their run after 70 seconds if they haven't hit all the targets). The combination of running and shooting, which was a contentious move back in 2008, should make for a big finish. The other three events (épée fencing, a 200-metre swim, and show jumping with an unfamiliar horse) are held separately and scored on a points basis, which is used to determine when athletes start the final run-and-shoot competition, so the first athlete to cross the finish line will win. Combining running and shooting with the new guns should provide a remarkable, made-for-TV finish.

Interestingly enough, the future-focused changes to the modern pentathlon have perhaps brought the sport closer to its ancestral roots. The "modern" differentiates it from the original pentathlon used at the ancient Olympics in Greece, which comprised a stadion foot race (about 200 metres), wrestling, long jump, javelin, and discus, five events that were thought to show off abilities essential for soldiers of the day. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics, also came up with modern pentathlon (which was first contested at the 1912 Games), keeping the same focus on five skills officers of the day were thought to have needed; running, swimming, shooting, riding an unfamiliar horse and swordsmanship.

While there aren't huge roles for fencing or equestrian skills in today's armies, though, an ability to shoot accurately after running certainly is valuable. This also helps distinguish pentathlon amongst the pack of Olympic sports, as while the equestrian competitions, fencing and swimming all have their own Olympic events, nothing else combines running and shooting (unless you're talking about the offence famously used by the old Houston Oilers). The ancient Greeks didn't have laser guns, and they might even quibble with this being termed a pentathlon rather than a tetrathlon (as some feel the run-and-shoot combination is only one sport), but they might well appreciate the changes here. Television viewers likely will.