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Modern pentathlon: a daunting test of varied athletic skills

With 23 official sports, it is inevitable that some pursuits at the Olympics will be largely overlooked. Modern pentathlon falls squarely into this ``sideshow'' category, attracting some of the smallest crowds. The English-language Korea Times, which is blanketing the Games, somehow let the second-day results escape coverage. And the TV people aren't exactly beating down the doors, either.

Of course it's hard to know which doors to enter, since modern pentathlon is surely the most elusive sport at any Olympics, summer or winter.

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The competition resembles a progressive athletic dinner, switching locations each of the five days necessary to complete the five events.

Horseback riding, which is the first of these, actually takes place outdoors. But for three days thereafter, the action switches from the fencing arena to the swimming pool to the shooting range, with the wrap-up back outside for a cross-country run.

Though far less prominent than track and field's 10-event decathlon (or even the women's heptathlon), modern pentathlon may be the most intriguing test of varied athletic abilities at the Olympics.

And despite the rather misleading name, it dates back quite some years.

It was introduced at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, after Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, was inspired to update a five-event competition that measured who was the greatest warrior in ancient Greece.

A Frenchman, he chose the military couriers of Napoleon's time as role models.

These couriers had to deliver messages on horseback, defend themselves with pistol and sword, and run and swim to their destination if left without a mount.

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The event's military roots attracted George Patton, a US Army lieutenant later to become a famous general, to the inaugural Olympic competition.

Ironically, Patton was such a poor shot the he ruined his chances to win a medal.

A lot of other soldiers didn't, though, and it wasn't until 1952 that a civilian gold medal winner emerged.

The Scandinavian countries were dominant up until World War II. Since then, the East bloc has come on strong in this male-only competition, with Hungarians and Soviets expected to win the top team and individual medals when the results are tallied after Thursday's 4,000-meter cross-country run (about 2 miles).

This finale is arranged so that an athlete can move up in the point standings by passing those who start in front of him.

Another interesting aspect of the competition occurs in the equestrian portion, where unfamiliar horses are selected in a draw. After only a 20-minute warm-up, riders guide their steeds through a 15-obstacle course. In the shooting, competitors use .22-caliber pistols and draw a bead on revolving targets.

Epees are used in the one-touch-and-you-lose fencing competition, which in some ways is the most mentally exhausting of the five events. Soviet star Boris Onishchenko obviously found the tension too great in 1976, when he was discovered using a wired epee that registered contact when none existed.

Because each fencer faces everyone else in a massive round robin, the competition can take as many as 16 hours to complete.

``At that point you're ready to quit and go home,'' says American Bob Nieman, whose chances for a medal may have evaporated, but whose mere presence in the the field is a noteworthy achievement.

Nieman turns 41 in October, and while there are older athletes at these Olympics, few if any compete in a sport with the physical demands he confronts in the swimming and running events.

This is third time Nieman has been on the US team. His last appearance in the Games, though, came in 1976.

For all intents and purposes, he had retired after failing, by one place, to make the the four-member 1984 US team. As he puts it, however, he decided to make a comeback after getting ``the hungries'' working as a modern pentathlon commentator at the Goodwill Games two years ago.

``Making the Olympics was the motivation,'' he says. ``If you'd told me, come back and you'll be a national champion, I wouldn't have done it.''

About a year and a half ago, he left his job as a director of design for a national restaurant chain to devote himself to a training regimen that led to victories in this year's national championship and Olympic trials. His wife, Susan, has been able to support the couple financially as a sales manager of a San Antonio radio station.

Nieman's dream of making the Olympics dates back to 1958, when, as a young swimmer, he first began year-round training. He became a state high school champion in Illinois, then attended the Air Force Academy and unsuccessfully attempted to make the 1968 and '72 US Olympic swimming teams.

He quit swimming at the age of 25, but while serving as a captain in the Air Force got introduced to a ``weird sport,'' which of course was modern pentathlon. He gave it a try and was soon hooked, along with several other serviceman athletes.

``We started building what we called a Camelot experience in pentathlon,'' he says. ``It jelled at the end of the decade.''

Indeed it did, as Nieman, in 1979, became the first American to win a world championship in the sport.

Going into the 1980 Olympics, Nieman and the US team were both top-ranked, a status reconfirmed only a month before the Games in competition with the Soviets at the Scandinavian championships.

The US boycott in Moscow was even harder to take, since Nieman had managed to make the US team in fencing as well as the modern pentathlon.

Nieman now considers his strengths to be fencing, shooting, and riding. He got off slowly in the riding here, but made up some ground with a seventh place, among more than 60 competitors, in the fencing.

No matter where he finishes overall, he will conclude an incredible athletic saga when he completes this year's event.

``A road of about 30 years comes to an end here,'' he says.

``In that time I've run far enough to circle the globe and swum far enough to cross every ocean. Probably nothing will ever mean as much again.''

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