CERTAINLY NO OLYMPIC SPORT REquires as diverse a range of athletic
talents as the modern pentathlon. Introduced by Baron Pierre de
Coubertin at the 1912 Games, the modern pentathlon re-creates the
tasks of a Napoleonic-era military courier making his way through
enemy territory. Over five days, athletes ride randomly chosen horses
over a 600-meter, 15-jump course, face every other competitor in epee
fencing, swim 300 meters freestyle, shoot .22-caliber ; pistols at
revolving targets and run 4,000 meters cross-country. Points are
awarded according to predetermined performance standards, much as in
the decathlon in track and field. Each nation enters three men
(modern pentathlon is not an Olympic sport for women) who compete for
individual as well as team medals.
A poor performance in one event can doom a pentathlete. In the
1912 Games, a young U.S. Army lieutenant named George Patton finished
fifth overall. Patton might have won, but he placed 21st in the
pistol shoot. Over the years pentathletes have tried just about
everything to overcome -- or to get around -- the demands of their
sport. In the 1976 Olympics, Soviet star Boris Onischenko was
disqualified when he rigged his epee to register false touches. Until
doping controls became more rigorous, pentathletes regularly took
valium or librium to steady their aim in the pistol shoot. Today most
competitors build their programs around the swim and the run, the two
events least affected by nerves and chance.
In Seoul, the Soviet Union and Hungary should battle for the gold.
Between them they have won seven of the nine Olympic team
competitions. At last year's world championships in Moulins, France,
the Hungarians suffered a series of disastrous rides but came back to
edge the Soviets by 36 points. Third-place Great Britain finished
more than 200 points behind the U.S.S.R.
The Soviets will be led by Anatoly Avdeev, 27, and Vakhtang
Yagorashvili, 24, who was the world junior champion in 1985 and who
has beaten Avdeev twice this year. The Hungarians will have three
contenders: former world champion Attila Miszer, 27, perhaps the best
shooter in the sport; Laszlo Fabian, 25, a strong swimmer and fencer
but an inconsistent shot; and Janos Martinek, 23, who won the
prestigious Honved Cup in Budapest in May.
Other competitors to watch include France's Joel Bouzou, 32, the
upset winner at Moulins; Italy's Daniele Masala, 33, who won at L.A.
in '84 in the absence of the Eastern bloc countries; and
Czechoslovakia's Milan Kadlec, 29, who came in second at Moulins. In
the team competition, the battle for the bronze should be among
defending Olympic champion Italy, France, Britain and the U.S., and
it will depend largely on what Bill Hanson, executive director of the
U.S. Modern Pentathlon Association, terms the ''choke factor.'' To
have a chance for third place, says Hanson, ''the U.S. will have to
put together a flawless program and then just hope.''