The true history of modern pentathlon revealed

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Ansgar Molzberger
Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln


Sandra Heck Von spielenden Soldaten und kämpfenden Athleten: Die Genese des Modernen Fünfkamps 487 sidor, inb., ill. Göttingen: V & R unipress 2013 ISBN 978-3-8471-0201-4

Sandra Heck
Von spielenden Soldaten und kämpfenden Athleten: Die Genese des Modernen Fünfkamps
487 sidor, inb., ill.
Göttingen: V & R unipress 2013
ISBN 978-3-8471-0201-4

This book is a revised version of the degree thesis submitted in 2012 to the Faculty of Sports Science of the Ruhr University Bochum, which was awarded the 2013 Dr. Klaus Marquardt Prize. The study focuses on the background for the premiere of the first Modern Pentathlon, in particular, the question of its intellectual property rights. Since this competition which was staged for the first time within the framework of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm was not, as is usually stated to date, the work of Pierre de Coubertin alone – a “paternity” which he liked to claim for himself during his lifetimes. In fact, the President of the Organising Committee for the Stockholm Games, the Swedish officer, sports official and IOC founding member Viktor Balck, was actively involved in the Olympic premiere. Balck’s commitment was based on the Swedish Versatility Ideal and the conviction that sport would contribute to the militarisation of his compatriots. Against this background, Heck investigates the genesis of the Modern Pentathlon along two main lines: the “Olympic-Coubertinian” and the “Swedish-Military”. This dichotomy is also reflected in the book title, which raises the question of whether fighting athletes or playing soldiers competed in 1912, or a mixture of both.

Heck’s work is based on an exhaustive study of sources, in particular archive material she consulted and evaluated in Lausanne, Stockholm, London and Washington, to name but a few. Her comprehensive treatise is divided into six chapters of text, a list of sources, a bibliography (Chap. 7) and an appendix (Chap. 8). After some introductory questions about the state of research and explanations to the methodological approach, in chapter 2, she first examines Coubertin’s vision of an ideal athlete. She discovers that the ancient pentathlon, the contemporary French symbol of Débrouillardise (perfection) and the objective gymnastics of the 19th Century had influenced the then IOC President, before she reveals the contradictive character of his Olympic principles – for example, universal peace mission versus nationalistic military enthusiasm. That, against this background, Coubertin’s ideas of staging a multi-discipline event can hardly be explained by just a single factor, Heck expresses thus:

Moreover, Coubertin was by no means interested in the theoretical consensus of all his thoughts, but focused on the main points, which, in part, were subject to changes in the course of his life and thus contradicted previous ideas or heralded an (alleged) change of mind (p. 107).

Chap. 3 deals with the Swedish Versatility Ideal, which, on a civilian and in particular on a military level, characterised both domestic gymnastics created by Per Henrik Ling in the early 19th Century, and the Sports Movement significantly influenced by Viktor Balck, which gained a stronger foothold in Sweden at the end of the 19th Century. Heck very aptly describes the competitive situation between the representatives of English sport and the orthodox “Lingians”, who rejected sport as too competition- and performance-oriented. Balck’s ideological balance between his professional activities at the Stockholm Gymnastiska Centralinstitutet and his increasing involvement in sports is also addressed.

The entrenchment of both the gymnastics and sports associations in the Swedish National Movement, which followed the loss of European Great Power status due to the participation in the wars of liberation against Napoleon and which had determined the socio-political climate of the country in the 19th century, could have been even more strongly emphasised. This entrenchment was not only evident in the promotion of physical exercises in conjunction with militarisation, but also in the Swedish special path, namely to import sport from England but not the terminology. In fact, the word idrott, which goes back to Old Norse meaning achievement or skill, was preferred to “sport”. The fact that the highly patriotic Balck was active in the international Olympic Movement from 1894 should be regarded as an expression of his ambition to use the “Olympic Stage” to demonstrate Swedish strength.

As Heck describes it, Coubertin explicitly demanded the provision and allocation of horses by the organiser, while the Swedes wanted the athletes to choose their own horses.

Chapters 4 and 5, in which Heck describes in detail the introduction of the Modern Pentathlon to the Olympic competition programme and its premiere in Stockholm, form the core subject of her work. The author assigns a far higher priority to the analysis of the genesis of this new sport discipline than to the discussions at IOC level before 1912. She mentions examples of combined events from the 19th Century, among others the athletic pentathlon at the Much Wenlock Games (p. 174ff.).

How closely the history of such “general” combined events is intertwined with the birth of the Modern Pentathlon becomes clear in the discussions about this idea in the run-up to the Stockholm Olympic Games. By means of a table, Heck charts how the composition and sequence of the competition disciplines in the years 1909 to 1911 were changed several times, until the combined event staged in 1912 comprising shooting, swimming, fencing, horse riding and running was a done deal (p. 218f.). Apart from Coubertin, Balck in particular, as a staunch supporter of the Versatility Ideal, played an active role as a “motor” for this new Olympic sport discipline by putting the matter at the top of the agenda and taking on the chairmanship in the OC sub-committee for the Modern Pentathlon in 1911.

Nevertheless, the co-operation between the Swedish supporters and Coubertin was not without complications, as a dispute arose about which horses the participants should use for the competition. As Heck describes it, Coubertin explicitly demanded the provision and allocation of horses by the organiser, while the Swedes wanted the athletes to choose their own horses (p. 232ff.). Although Coubertin was able to impose his “democratic” idea formally, according to which an athlete, regardless of his social position, should prove to be able to ride (even a foreign horse), ultimately most of the participants used their own horses.

However, this dispute did not diminish the Swedish enthusiasm for the new sport discipline. The Modern Pentathlon was anchored and promoted in military sport. Domestic officers won all the medals in 1912, and the competitions in the following Olympic Games turned into, so to speak, a national championship, since – with the exception of 1936 – until 1948, the Swedish athletes shared virtually all the podium places.

After a detailed description of the Olympic debut in 1912, the author discusses the question raised at the beginning of her work about the character of the first competition: Olympic (Coubertin) or Swedish-Military (Balck)? Whereas in literature, to date, the opinion prevails that the property rights belong to the IOC President, even though Balck promoted Swedish influence in his 1931 posthumously published memoirs, Heck comes to a different conclusion: She also ascribes a distinct role in the emergence of this sport discipline to the Swedes with reference to the military sport and Balck’s commitment, without denying the simultaneous characterisation by Coubertin. In her opinion, this is reflected in the fact that the Modern Pentathlon in 1912 was integrated into a special sport programme and civilians were also allowed to participate (p. 373ff.). In Heck’s words: “Even though the majority of the 1912 participants in real life actually were “fighting soldiers” and would be again in the future, some of them dropped their military duties for a short time and became “playing athletes” (p. 376).

The particular merit of this differentiated conclusion (chapter 6) can primarily be seen in the fact that it is based on a highly comprehensive evaluation of archive material, allowing the early history of the Modern Pentathlon to be dealt with for the first time in such depth.

It is particularly interesting to note that Heck didn’t finish her dissertation with 1912. In fact, she provides food for thought for the potential further development of this sport discipline – following the French ideal of Débrouillardise popular in the 19th Century – by discussing a constant, time-linked restructuring of the Modern Pentathlon (alternatively Heptathlon) under the German school sport-inspired heading “Competency-orientated Movement Diversity” (p. 395ff.). Thus, this sport discipline could in the future comprise such disciplines as sprinting, climbing, rope skipping, boxing and inline skating. However, two questions remain unanswered: On the one hand, whether such a combination coupled with (German) School Sports reforms could find international acceptance and, on the other, whether the regularly changing structure of the combined event would spell a quick end to this sport discipline due to the shortage of young athletes. It seems doubtful whether a young athlete would be able to prepare himself seriously for a high-performance career in a combined event, the structure of which may have changed again before he reaches “Olympic Adulthood”.

As a suggestion for the further development of this sport discipline, these thoughts are nevertheless of interest, particularly since they can be understood as a “modern reflection” of the discussions about the origin and composition of the Modern Pentathlon dealt with at the beginning of this work. Thus, Heck travels a full circle of about one hundred years in this extraordinarily successful and exciting book.

Copyright © Ansgar Molzberger 2014

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