Modern Pentathlon

Modern pentathlon: What you need to know

Modern pentathlon is the ultimate sport for multitaskers. Here is everything you need to know to instantly become an expert and impress all your friends.

Obscure sport has a few quirks

One picture isn't enough to show all the different events in the modern pentathlon. (The Associated Press)

By Benjamin Blum, CBC Sports

Modern pentathlon is the ultimate sport for multitaskers. While both the heptathlon and decathlon have more events in them, modern pentathlon has a more eclectic offering of disciplines ranging from swimming to horseback riding and a unique deciding event.

Here is everything you need to know about modern pentathlon to instantly become an expert and impress all your friends.

Five sports for the price of one

Modern pentathlon was introduced at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm with the intention of testing cavalry skills and replacing the ancient pentathlon (running, long jump, spear throwing, discus, wrestling).

The team event ran from 1952 until 1992, and the women's event was introduced in Sydney in 2000.

The sport combines the following events:

  • fencing
  • swimming
  • horse riding
  • combined running and shooting

Coincidentally, these are also the skills you'd need to survive in a Charles Dickens novel.

Competition format

The modern pentathlon takes place over the course of one day, adding to the difficulty of the event. During each event, competitors earn points with the highest scores at the end of the final leg earning a spot on the podium.

The events break down as follows:


  • round-robin followed by bonus round
  • competitors face off in one-touch bouts (first person to score a point wins)


  • 200-metre freestyle

Horse riding

  • horses drawn beforehand
  • show jumping competition

Combined running and shooting

  • points leader gets a head start, followed by the rest of the field in order
  • four 800m laps with four shooting stops in between
  • must hit five targets (or 50 seconds) before continuing to next leg of race
  • overall winner determined by finish in race

Pentathlon powerhouses

Sweden owns 19 medals in the individual men's pentathlon, including sweeping the podium in the first three modern pentathlon competitions. The Soviet Union and successor states like Russia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Belarus have earned a combined 17 medals.

In the women's event, Great Britain leads the way with five out of a possible 12 medals since the sport's introduction.

Melanie McCann and Donna Vakalis will represent Canada in Rio. McCann, originally from Mount Carmel, Ont., finished 11th at the 2012 Olympics, a record-high for a Canadian pentathlete.

While Vakalis did not fare as well in London, the Toronto native placed fourth at the Pan Am Games last summer in her hometown.

Fun facts you need to know

Want know more about pentathlon? Here are five (trope alert!) things that will help you answer obscure sports questions at your next trivia night:

  • The sport's military-inspired origins aren't just for show. General George S. Patton, the decorated military tactician who led the Third U.S. Army in World War II, competed in the inaugural pentathlon in 1912. He placed fifth, but is better remembered for this Oscar-winning monologue from actor George C. Scott.
  • In most Olympic equestrian events, riders bring their own horse. However, modern pentathletes are randomly assigned a steed shortly before the event, adding another element of difficulty to the equine event.
  • Wait, shouldn't it be modern tetrathlon? The five disciplines were separate until the 2012 Games, when running and shooting were combined to form the final leg of the event. Disgruntled Greek numerologists are more than welcome to argue about prefix problems in the comment section.
  • With a field of 36 competitors, you have to fence fast in the round-robin. If neither competitor scores after 60 seconds, they both lose. Pretty harsh.
  • Laser pistols replaced air pistols in the pentathlon in 2011, making the sport appealing to athletes who are also Star Wars fans. Just make sure to be like Han Solo and shoot first.


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