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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
-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.