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Pentathlon Strives to Become ModernBy Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 31, 1996; Page D01
CONYERS, Ga., July 30—Baron de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, devised it; George S. Patton competed in the first one in 1912, finishing fifth; and the Prince of Monaco, King and Queen of Sweden and the president of the International Olympic Committee all came by today to watch. These are good signs for modern pentathlon, a sport clinging by a thread to its Olympic life.
"The International Olympic Committee told us in 1992, 'If you don't change, you're out,'‚" said Jim Gregory, of Woodbridge, an alternate on the U.S. team. "We changed. I think we're going to survive."
Gregory was perched in the stands this morning watching teammate Mike Gostigian parry the fencing thrusts of Russians, Hungarians and Italians, as pentathletes have in the Olympics for 84 years. Gostigian was on a losing streak. "Nerves," said Gregory. "I don't know what's going through his head."
With 10 hours of hard slogging to go, maybe Gostigian was just thinking of the work ahead.
In a bid to placate TV gods and the mighty IOC, modern pentathlon this year squeezed its century-old, four-day format into one long day. That sent 32 athletes from around the globe on a dawn-to-dusk dash—shooting, fencing, swimming, show-jumping horses and running a 2 1/2-mile cross-country foot race at three separate venues scattered over 50 miles of steaming Georgia red clay.
The ordeal-by-shuttle-bus had all the earmarks of a last bid for survival. Could today's be the final Olympic modern pentathlon? "I hope not," said actor Dolph Lundgren, who played a pentathlete in a movie and now serves as public relations icon for the U.S. team.
"This is not a high-profile sport," he said, "but a lot of Olympic sports are not. That's what makes the Olympics special. Without them, it's just another day on TV."
Which might sound pretty good to pentathletes after today.
The first one-day modern pentathlon in Olympic history came to a rousing conclusion as Russian Edouard Zenovka stumbled and fell with 10 yards to the finish, allowing Kazakhstan's Aleksandr Parygin to take the gold.
After a 12 1/2-hour ordeal of shooting, fencing, swimming and horse-jumping, the 32 entrants started the concluding, 2 1/2-mile cross-country run from the Georgia International Horse Park in a chase scenario, with starts staggered on the basis of points accumulated.
Italian Cesare Toraldo was first off the line with Parygin 20 seconds behind and the 30 other competitors arrayed in sequence behind him. Toraldo quickly faded and it soon became a two-man race between Parygin and Zenovka, with whoever returned first to the finish after four loops on the cross-country track taking gold.
Zenovka had a three-step lead with 50 yards to go, but as Parygin made his final sprint, Zenovka looked over his shoulder, lost his footing and tumbled to the dirt just steps from the finish. He regained his feet and staggered home just ahead of bronze medalist Janos Martinek of Hungary.
It started at 7 a.m., deep in the basement of the World Congress Center as each man was handed 20 air-gun pellets and told to go for the bulls-eye from 10 meters with a pistol, phhht, phhht, phhht. "It was better," said an old-timer from the 1950s, "when we used real guns that made noise."
Gostigian finished deep in the pack, then changed quickly into fencing garb and did about the same with the foils. "You go from an event where you have to be basically a standing cadaver to one where you're a screaming wild man," said Gostigian. "It's not an easy sport."
"But I'm not fencing now," said the three-time Olympian from Newtown Square, Pa., eyeing the exit and the bus to the aquatic center, where he was to swim 300 meters an hour later. "I'm a swimmer. And if you see me in the bottom of the pool, please call 911."
Baron de Coubertin's idea was to test versatility by simulating the challenge of an army courier handed a message to deliver to the front lines. He'd take an unfamiliar horse overland, fight foes with pistol and sword, swim a river, then run the last few miles.
That was back in the days before wars were on TV, and therein lies the rub.
"I had a meeting with [IOC President] Juan Antonio Samaranch after the 1992 Games and asked what we needed to do" to stay afloat in the Games, said Rob Stull, of Damascus, three-time Olympian who would have been a contender this year if his leg hadn't been shattered by a horse kick last year.
"He said basically, 'Make it TV- and spectator-friendly and don't take up a lot of days for a few medals,'‚" said Stull. So organizers kept cutting away till all that was left was one day, 32 athletes instead of 88, air pistols instead of guns, one-minute instead of three-minute fencing matches, show jumping instead of cross-country rides.
The streamlined version attracted a small but noisy and highly partisan crowd that followed the athletes by day's end to the Georgia International Horse Park, where swimmers became horsemen replendent in jodhpurs and tails, then turned into sweating, straining runners in shorts.
"Stick around for the run," said Gostigian after a superb ride lifted him to 15th place in the standings. "I guarantee you'll see five guys hauled off in ambulances."
How about his medal chances? "Only if Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly are hiding behind a tree to kneecap the top 12 or 13," he said. "There's guys here who'll be running for an apartment and a Mercedes-Benz. I'm not going to win a medal against them."
He was right. He finished 16th.
Can this arcane sport in its new format survive to Sydney in 2000? "We're on the program," says Stull, "and we're shooting for more instead of less this time. We want four medals, men and women, individual and relay [team] events.
"This sport has done more to change itself in the last 2 1/2 years than it has in the last 100," he said. "God knows where the Olympics are going, but this event goes all the way back to the start. It's a tie to the Olympic ideal."
"I'm hopeful for the future," said Gostigian as he suited up for his final event, eating bananas and looking weary. "You know, you could slip skis on these horses and you'd have a guaranteed event in the Winter Games. But this is the Summer Olympics. It's competitive out there."