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The 2012 Summer Olympics Modern Pentathlon: A Guide to the Rules

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Jim Thorpe was the only American to win the pentathlon, doing so in 1912, the first year the pentathlon was contested as an Olympic event. Thorpe was later stripped of his medal for having previously played semi-pro baseball, a violation of the Olympic rules in effect at that time mandating amateur status. His medals were posthumously restored in 1982.

What rules are in place for the pentathlon at the London Olympic Games this summer?


The basic premise is straightforward. Two pentathletes don protective suits wired to a signal box. Standing on a piste, a conductive metal mat, they attempt to score a "hit" by touching their opponent with the tip of their sword, called an epee. The "hit" completes the electrical circuit causing the signal box to sound.

Among the more interesting rules of the competition are:

2.10.5 Method of making a hit

"A flèche attack, even made by running and/or going past the opponent or advancing vigorously, as long as it happens without brutality or violence, is allowed, even if it ends in one or several or systematic corps à corps."

People traditionally think of fencing as two combatants facing each other in a formal face-off. But you may run, charge, even slam into your opponent. An applicable comparison would be a basketball player driving the lane through an opponent to get to the basket.

2.10.8 Use of the non-sword hand and arm

"The use of the non-sword hand and arm to carry out an offensive or defensive action is forbidden."

Continuing the basketball analogy, you cannot use your non-dribbling hand to check or push an opponent to clear space.


The rules for the swimming portion of the pentathlon are standard for any Olympic swimming contest. Swimmers start with a dive (those leaving early are penalized for a false-start) and swim four laps in a 50-meter pool.

But as with any rulebook, there are always some odd stipulations:

3.3.1 Control of Clothing and Equipment

"All pentathletes swimwear must be in good condition and non-transparent."

I am not sure the advantages to a transparent suit, and this is one of those cases where one has to wonder exactly what circumstances necessitated the inclusion of this rule?

3.7.4 The Pool

"The water temperature shall have a minimum temperature of 26C (+/- 1C). During the competition, the water in the pool must be kept at a constant level, with no noticeable movement."

I often refer to this as the "Goldilocks Rule."


The riding portion of the pentathlon has one major rule that separates it from the traditional equestrian events.

4.5.6 The Draw

"After Fencing and Swimming, the leader after two events, will draw their horse. On the basis of this draw all the horses (that have been previously numbered) will be automatically distributed to all the other pentathletes."

Many equestrian riders have practiced with their horse for years. In pentathlon, they are randomly assigned, so competitors need to be able to control a horse they are likely riding for the first time.

4.7.1 Conduct of pentathletes and horses

"The pentathletes must treat the horses with care, fairly and without cruelty. If a pentathlete commits an act of cruelty to his horse he will be penalized."

Even in a sport where decorum reigns, much like tennis at Wimbledon, safeguards need to be in place. It is one thing for a frustrated tennis player to smash his racket, but another to mistreat a horse.

Combined Event

Any event where people are running and shooting clearly needs rules, and there are plenty, including some that I have never seen in other sports.

5.5 Clothing

"It is strongly recommended that the current Olympic and World Champions wear some item of clothing, vest or armband, which identifies to the spectators their Champion status."

I assume they refer to a patch, or a yellow jersey like the Tour de France? It would be difficult to run and shoot with a gold medal around your neck.

5.11.2 Spare Targets and Insufficient Targets

"In case of insufficient number of targets for all the pentathletes, the combined event can be organized in two or more series with the top pentathletes competing in the last series."

These are the Olympic Games. If there is a risk we may not have enough for everyone, maybe they could get a corporate sponsor, say Target ?

A complete list of rules in effect for the Olympic pentathlon is available here.

A fan of the Olympics and frequent writer about the 2012 London Games, Dave will be spending his summer vacation stateside, cheering on Team USA to gold.

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