Modern Pentathlon: the final Olympic equestrian event

Olympic medals
Photo courtesy London 2012

Feeling sad now that the equestrian events at the 2012 London Olympics are over? There is one more horse sport left to go, and it takes place this weekend. Modern pentathlon tests athletes in five very different sports, including equestrian show jumping.

The sport of modern pentathlon was invented for the modern Olympics to test competitors in the skills considered to be essential for a well-rounded soldier. Participants compete in fencing, swimming, equestrian, shooting and running. While few members of today’s military need to have riding or fencing skills, the sport is still valued as an all-around test of distinct athletic abilities.

Like equestrian, modern pentathlon is celebrating 100 years in the Olympics this year, having debuted at the 1912 Stockholm games. The sport has undergone many changes in its history. Originally held as five separate events over five days, it is now consolidated into a single day, and the shooting competition has been integrated into the running, similar to the biathlon (cross-country skiing and shooting) seen in the winter Olympics. Women’s modern pentathlon was first introduced at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The sport is not well-known in the United States. The nations to beat in modern pentathlon are Sweden and Hungary, which have each won 21 medals in the sport. The Soviet Union was a powerhouse of the sport as well, and several former Soviet countries continue to have success. The U.S. will be represented this year by Margaux Isaksen and Suzanne Stettinius in the women’s event and Dennis Bowsher for the men. All three are first-time Olympians.

The pentathletes’ competition day will begin with fencing. Each competitor has 35 matches that end after a single touch or after 60 seconds. If an athlete wins 25 of the 35 matches, they will carry 1,000 points to the next round. Each win or loss above or below 25 adds or subtracts 24 points from the competitor’s score.

Next, the athletes compete in a 200-meter freestyle swim. A finish of 2:30 earns 1,000 points. Every third of a second faster or slower results in four points added or subtracted.

The third phase is the equestrian competition. Each athlete is assigned to a horse they have never ridden before. After no more than 20 minutes warm up with five practice fences, the riders will compete in a 12-fence jumper round. A clear round earns a rider 1,200 points. Each fence height lowered subtracts 20 points and a refusal loses a competitor 40 points. A fall costs 60 points. Time faults result in four points subtracted for each second over the allotted time.

The equestrian phase was exceptionally challenging at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where some of the horses provided by the host nation proved difficult to ride. A traditionally equestrian country like Great Britain will likely offer high-quality horses, but with unfamiliar mounts and athletes that can only devote 1/5 of their training to riding, the equestrian phase is always a gamble for pentathletes.

The day wraps up with the running and shooting combined event. The points accrued through the previous three phases will determine the starting order of the final phase. The competitor with the most points starts first. Start times for the remaining competitors are based on their scores. For every four seconds they trail the leader, they will start one second later. This ensures a spectator-friendly finish where the first athlete across the line is the winner.

The 3k run (approximately 1.86 miles) is divided into three sections. After each 1,000 meters, the competitors will stop and shoot five targets. As soon as they’ve hit each target, they continue on the next running leg. Each shooting phase has a time limit of one minute and ten seconds. The competitors can continue running after the time limit is reached even if they have not hit all the targets, but they will be out of medal contention. This year, competitors will be using laser guns instead of air pistols for the first time.

Modern pentathlon begins at 8:45 a.m. London time (3:45 a.m. EDT) on Saturday for the men and 8:00 a.m. (3:00 a.m.) on Sunday for the women. The equestrian phase will begin at 10:55 a.m. EDT on Saturday and 10:10 a.m. EDT on Sunday. To watch the events, sign up for an account at (the account is free, but requires that you have a participating cable or satellite account.)

For more information:
USA Modern Pentathlon
USA Modern Pentathlon Facebook

See all equestrian news from the 2012 London Olympics at



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