The modern pentathlon was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, to test ‘men’s moral qualities, as well as their physical capabilities and skills, consequently producing the ideal complete athlete’. It’s been part of the Olympic Games since Stockholm 1912, and all the events have taken place on one day since Atlanta 1996. Women took part in the modern pentathlon for the first time in Sydney 2000, and for London 2012, the running and shooting events were combined for the first time.
That’s quite a few firsts. My only first was to figure out how to complete all the events in one day at a venue in SE London. Over lunch with a couple of work colleagues (Hello Pip and Vanessa!) we chatted about my dilemma and came up with a solution: I’d hold the modern pentathlon in my local park, invite people to join me, and interpret each event.
I’d already completed the individual elements of the modern pentathlon – swimming, fencing, running, shooting, and horse riding – so my interpretation would involve light sabres, Nerf guns, and a unicorn.
I posted an invitation to family and friends on social media and started collating equipment. Trace and spent a happy hour in Toys ‘R’ Us, I shamelessly exploited my work connections (Hello Gary, Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice’s wonderful warehouse manager) to source a few key items, and Caroline came through with the star of the show.
Walking the arena
The night before, Trace and I walked round the park to decide the arena for each event. We had no idea how big the crowd would be and wanted to ensure a near-seamless transition so the crowd’s interest wouldn’t flag. Back home we constructed the shooting target, tested the weaponry, and checked the sturdiness of the animal.
The day of the modern pentathlon was also day four of the marathon swimming event, so I hit Charlton Lido early to get in my 1000m – the swimming element of the modern pentathlon is 200m so I figured my extra 800m would compensate for the shortfall elsewhere.
After a quick refuel, we headed to the park to set up.
My head was buried in a bag while I made last minute adjustments to the animal when I heard a woman ask: ‘Am I in the right place for Freyathlon?’. It was my mother, making a surprise visit and fitting in the modern pentathlon before heading back to Oxford for a wedding (Hello Lynn and John!) that afternoon. An expert packer and used to travelling light: she patted her rucksack and told Michele it contained her dress for the wedding.
Let the pentathlon begin!
The crowd (at one point numbers swelled to about 20, including small children) began to assemble and I explained the order of events.
Trace and I took up our fencing foils, aka light sabres bought from Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice, and Caroline offered to umpire the match. We agreed our rules and took up our places on the piste, aka two yoga mats. After a couple of points, the umpire pointed out the piste was too short (particularly when one fencer kept retreating) and decided the match would continue alongside the piste.
It was a closely-contested match but disaster struck at 4:4. The handle of one light sabre made contact with the thumb of one fencer. The injured fencer appealed to the umpire and the crowd and retired from the match. This was Trace’s third Freyathlon-related injury – she’d previously been injured during the beach volleyball and football events.
After a hasty consultation, the umpire agreed the match could continue with tag-fencers and Michele, then Laurence, took up the light sabre. But, thanks to the skills I’d acquired from Blackheath Fencing Club’s coach Andrew, I slowly accumulated points and the match ended 10:7.
Next up was the combined running and shooting event. Some of the crowd (Hello Lee, Max, and Trace!) had been over-familiarising themselves with the weaponry and the course was littered with foam bullets. Those responsible for the bullet-littering were sent to recover the ammunition and reload the weapons.
I measured 10m and set up the shooting target (a silver foil circle taped to the handle of a trolley), then pointed out the route for the run (to a nearby bench and back). Some of the crowd (Hello Gill and Nikki!) asked if they could just take part in the shooting – and I sensed this was the element of the pentathlon the crowd had really come for.
We ran, we fired.
The crowd became restless and lobbied to move the target closer to improve their chances of successfully shooting through the centre of the target.
Not fancying my chances with the crowd, I moved the target and we began the second round of running and shooting.
This time some of the crowd surprised themselves and successfully fired through the target. Lee and Max began a father/son competition-within-a-competition, Alison and Nikki gave good style, while Caroline, Catharine, Gill, Nikki, Mary, and Trace proved to be consistent shots.
During the third and final round, the crowd’s attention wandered: Max gave some expert guidance to three small girls, Rosie talked about the childhood asthma charity Ella Roberta Family Foundation, Catharine discussed plans to mark the summer solstice, Pip and Laurence began fencing, Lee and Trace resumed their earlier game, Mary negotiated a spin on Rosie’s scooter.
In each round I failed to get one bullet through the target but my mother was a crack shot – advising everyone about wind direction and outshooting the field. I hope I’ve inherited some of those skills.
I don’t have the strongest track record with horse riding so this element of the modern pentathlon had been taxing me. But I should not have worried: Caroline offered a unicorn mask, which Trace fashioned into a hobby unicorn. And I was set.
No words can do justice to the experience of prancing around a public park on a hobby unicorn while wearing a pair of wings. All I can do is share the images.
I’m pretty sure it didn’t match de Coubertin’s definition of an ‘ideal complete athlete’ but the Mountsfield modern pentathlon was the most fun I’ve had in a park in a while.
Modern pentathlon. 4 June 2016
Mountsfield Park, Lewisham
TeamFreya: Alison, Anne Marie, Caroline, Catharine, Lawrence, Lee, Mary, Max, Michele, Nikki, Pip, Rosie, Trace
Cost: Free . Some equipment was bought from Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice and Toys ‘R’ Us – other charity and toy stores are available.