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A last minute guide to the modern pentathlon

Announcement of Modern Pentathlon Athletes Named in Team GB for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

The Modern Pentathlon is my favorite summer Olympics competition. I am an evangelist for the modern pentathlon and hope that you will join me in watching the final portion of the men’s event today at 1pm EDT.

What is the Modern Pentathlon?

The Modern Pentathlon combines five seemingly incongruent events all competed on the same day:

  • Shooting
  • Swimming
  • Fencing
  • Equestrian show jumping
  • Cross-country running

Why these five events?

The Modern Pentathlon is an updated version of the pentathlon competition in the ancient Olympics. The concept of the event is best summed up as “what if a 19th century, European, calvary officer was trapped behind enemy lines?”

What is so special about this event?

The rules based around the concept of this event is what makes the Modern Pentathlon so unique. First, there are the rules for fencing. Fencing is a round robin event comprised of one minute epee bouts (epee scores a touch anywhere on the body with the tip of the blade). The twist on this event, however, is the first touch wins. If neither competitor has scored a touch by the end of the minute then both are scored as a loss. So this makes for some very interesting fencing within the last 10 seconds. In 2016 they have changed up the fencing a little bit. Normally all events are competed on the same day but this Olympics they held a fencing “ranking” event on Thursday (following the rules I explained above) and on the day of the competition the fencing portion is a “bonus round.” This bonus round follows the same epee, first-touch rules but the winner of the bout stays on the piste. It starts with the two lowest ranking competitors from the “ranking event”. Winner stays on the piste and gains an extra point (more on that later) for each bout they win. Since first touch wins, you can see low ranking competitors rank up bonus points with win after win on the piste. Makes it more exciting to root for the underdog.

Second, the rules for equestrian show jumping literally put the athletes life in danger. Convincing a horse to jump over fences usually involves the rider and the horse developing trust with one another over a period of time. However, in the Modern Pentathlon, the athletes are randomly assigned horses that they have never ridden before. They are given just 20 minutes and 5 practice jumps to make nice with the horse and then they are out to the arena and start jumping fences. Horses have bucked riders off of their backs in previous competitions. In the women’s competition yesterday, the horse the Cuban athlete was riding veered away from the fence at the last moment. All that built up momentum threw the athlete from the horse and her body crashed into the fence post. She had to be removed from the arena by a cart. A couple of Olympics ago, a Spanish rider was thrown from the horse head first into a fence pole and broke his nose. He got back on the horse and finished the competition.

Third, for the 2012 and now the 2016 Olympics, they have combined the cross country running with the pistol shooting. The pistol shooting is actually done with laser pistols and it works essentially like a biathlon during the Winter Olympics. The runners run to the pistol station, shoot, once they have hit all 5 targets, they take a cross country lap. This event is held last and the competitors go in order of their overall ranking with the top ranked athlete starting first and the remaining athletes’ starts staggered by the number of points they are behind the leader (1 point = 1 second).

The only event in this competition that does not have a unique twist is the swimming. It is 200 meters swam in a pool in heats. It is a timed event with athletes receiving points based on their times.

This Olympics the events are being held in this order:

  1. Fencing (ranking event) - day before
  2. Swimming
  3. Fencing (bonus round)
  4. Show jumping
  5. Running/Shooting

How the Modern Pentathlon is scored.

In fencing (ranked event) each victory or loss receives +/- 6 points respectively. During the bonus round the athlete receives a point for every bout they win with the final competitor left on the piste receiving 2 points.

Swimming is scored based on a target time of 2:30 for a 200m freestyle swim. A point is scored (or subtracted) based on every third of a second an athlete is either under or over the target time.

Show jumping is scored based on faults or refusals and if the rider exceeds the allotted time. Seven to 10 penalty points are subtracted from the perfect score of 300 for refusals or a knocked over fence post. One point per second is subtracted for every second the rider remains on the course over the time allotted.

Running/Shooting is first person across the line wins gold, second wins silver, and the third wins bronze.

The final 3 events of the men’s competition (fencing bonus round, show jumping, and running/shooting) starts at 1pm EDT. You will have to follow the live stream online (or on the NBC Sports app). I will be live tweeting the events at @robbtuftshockey.

Now you know the basics of the Modern Pentathlon. If you watch the competition, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.