American athlete Vaho Iagorashvili was rubbing the sore spot on his right chest where the German fencer had crashed into him at the start of the modern pentathlon eight hours earlier.

He had a single bead of sweat trickling down his left temple, a half-hour after his 40-year-old legs had failed him in the 3,000-meter cross-country segment.

And since he had tumbled from fourth place to ninth in the final standings of the daylong men's competition Thursday, and because this was his farewell to pentathlon, he wanted to get on the bus.

But, he paused to say, it was a magnificent sport. It required skill in the varied pursuits of fencing, shooting, swimming, horseback riding and running. It demanded sublime concentration, sustained over an entire day. And it was utterly treacherous.

One might shoot, or fence superbly, only to falter in the pool, or on the track. A strong swimmer or runner might lack a steady hand with the air pistol, or the dancer's step required with the epee. And a lucky one might excel at all four, only to wind up on the equestrian course with a no-good, ornery nag.

This happened Thursday in the pentathlon's outdoor arena at the Goudi Olympic complex in the arid, piney hills above Athens. Not to Iagorashvili. But to an unfortunate Korean competitor, Do Ryung Han, 27, who had been in ninth place, with just the riding and running segments to go.

But in the hot sun of an Athens afternoon, Han drew in the horse lottery a dark brown, 11-year-old Italian gelding named Bario, who screeched to a halt at the first jump, pitching Han head over heels to the turf. He finished 24th overall.

It also happened to a Polish horseman named Marcin Horbacz, 30, who had been sixth after fencing, the second of the sport's five segments.

He drew from the horse pool another Italian steed, also 11, named Alexis II. The horse was so contrary that it refused to jump, and even shook its head "no," after Horbacz gave up, doffed his hat to the audience, and rode from the arena slumped in his saddle like a dejected cowpoke. By sunset, at the end of competition, Horbacz was dead last.

But this was pentathlon -- unpredictable, capricious, maddening.

Iagorashvili, a native of Tiblisi, Georgia, whose first name is Vakhtang, speaks of the sport as one might speak of fate. "It's pentathlon," he said. "It's very hard to predict."

Contestants accumulate points in the first four events, and their scores determine the order and timing of departure in the cross-country run. The winner of the run wins the pentathlon.

The gold medal was taken by a dashing Russian, Andrei Moiseyev, 25, who baffled his fencing opponents with his left-handed attacks, set an Olympic record in swimming, and won the cross-country by a wide margin. He crossed the finish line draped in the red, white and blue bars of the Russian flag.

The other American in the competition, Chad Senior, 29, of Fort Myers, Fla., a U.S. Army lieutenant and George Washington University graduate, placed 13th. He did well in swimming and running, but scored poorly in fencing, shooting and riding.

The women's competition is Friday, and features American Pentathletes Mary Beth Iagorashvili, Vaho's wife, and U.S. Army Capt. Anita Allen.

The modern pentathlon is the only Olympic event devised by Pierre de Coubertin, generally considered the founder of the modern Games, according to U.S. Olympic officials. He sought a modern version of the so called "five events" of the ancient Greek Olympics, which, in days of old, consisted of running, long jump, discus, javelin and wrestling.

Aristotle is said to have remarked that pentathletes are "the most perfect sportsmen . . . because in their bodies strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony."

De Coubertin believed a different set of skills summed up the perfect modern athlete. His complete competitor was the swashbuckling military figure of the late 19th century, a Napoleonic athlete, a cavalry courier, if you will, who could ride, shoot, fence, and also run and swim, if need be.

So was born the modern pentathlon. It was first contested in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, in which a young U.S. Army officer named George Patton finished out of the top three, Olympic officials said. The event was designed to appeal to national militaries, and despite alterations over the years, still carries an archaic, martial flair.

Several of Thursday's contestants suggested Polish or Hungarian counts of old. Lithuania's Edvinas Krungolcas, with his long blonde hair and chiseled features, was especially striking in his fencing whites. And Senior, the American army officer, rode the equestrian course in his dark blue army tunic, and light blue pants with a yellow cavalry stripe down the side.

"It's a beautiful sport," Iagorashvili said. He had been at it since he was a teenager.

He had competed in pentathlon for the Soviet Union, winning a bronze medal in Seoul in 1988; as well as for Georgia, and now the United States. And though he was now finished, and planned to go back to his home in San Antonio and relax, it's been "my life," he said.

Russian Andrei Moiseyev acknowledges the crowd after winning the pentathlon. Libor Capalini, left, of the Czech Republic squares off against countryman Michal Michalik in the fencing portion of the modern pentathlon. The event has a military background, with skills sought in a swashbuckling cavalry courier.