|7 – 12 July 1912
|Kaknäs, Djurgården, Stockholm / Stockholms Olympiastadion, Stockholm / Simstadion, Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, Stockholm / Östermalms Idrottsplats, Stockholm / Rinkeby
|32 from 10 countries
The modern pentathlon is a sport proposed by the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He envisioned a competition which would determine the greatest all-around sportsman, similar to the pentathlon of the Ancient Olympic Games, as described by Aristotle, “The most perfect sportsmen, therefore, are the Pentathletes because in their bodies strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony.”
But Coubertin’s all-around competition differed greatly from the Ancient Pentathlon, which consisted of the long jump, discus and javelin throwing, a sprint race of about 200 metres, and wrestling. At the 1909 IOC Session in Berlin, he first proposed the modern pentathlon, which was then noted to consist of “… equestrian, running, jumping, swimming, and wrestling. Fencing or shooting could replace wrestling.”
It was not until the 12th IOC Session at Budapest in 1911 that Coubertin’s idea was accepted by the IOC Membership. He stated, “I had already submitted the idea to the IOC on two previous occasions, and my proposal had always been greeted with a lack of understanding and almost hostility. I had not insisted. This time however the grace of the Holy Sporting Ghost enlightened my colleagues and they accepted an event to which I attached great importance: a veritable consecration of the complete athlete, the modern pentathlon was to comprise a foot-race, a horse-race, a swimming race, a fencing match, and finally, a shooting contest, which I would prefer to have had replaced by a rowing race, but this would have added greatly to the difficulties of the organization, which was already quite complicated enough.”
At that 1911 IOC Session, there was some concern on the part of the Stockholm organizers about providing horses for the competitors. Lyberg wrote, “The matter of the horses to be used started a heated discussion. Viktor Gustaf Balck had reported that the organisers could not provide horses to the competitors. De Coubertin got very upset. This competition was ‘his baby’ and told Balck that he and his friends had badly misunderstood his intentions. As not all competitors could bring their own horses the only solution was that the organisers must supply all with horses and that a draw was to be made for the horses. Balck was not happy but promised to provide the horses!)
The 1912 modern pentathlon consisted of rapid-fire pistol shooting, épée fencing, a 300 metre swimming race, a cross-country steeplechase equestrian event, and a 4,000 metre cross-country run. Probably better termed the military pentathlon, a press release from the UIPMB (Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne et Biathlon) described the choice of the events, “The choice of the five diverse and unrelated sports which make up the Modern Pentathlon arose out of the romantic, rough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse is brought down in enemy territory; having defended himself with this pistol and sword he swims across a raging river and delivers the message on foot.”
The 1912 Olympic modern pentathlon was the first time the event was ever contested, with the exception of Olympic trials in Sweden shortly before the Olympics. Because of its military imagery, most of the competitors were military officers. Many of the competitors also came to the modern pentathlon from other sports, using their skills in those sports to aid their training for the combined event. At Stockholm, 12 of the 32 modern pentathletes competed in another sport during the Olympics. The oldest participant in 1912 was Carl Pauen (GER) who was born on 7 April 1859 and was thus 53 years old in 1912. He retired, for reasons not known, after the first event, the shooting.
Sweden trained athletes specifically for the modern pentathlon in 1912, and their athletes dominated, as would be expected from their training. They entered 12 athletes, and Swedes finished in the first four places, six of the top seven, and seven of the top nine. Scoring was by a point-for-placed system for each of the five separate competitions.
The first event was shooting and three Swedes led, with Gösta Åsbrink winning the event with 20 hits, no misses, and 193 points. His teammates, Georg de Laval and Gösta Lilliehöök finished 2nd and 3rd. Swimming was held on the 2nd day, and de Laval and Åsbrink were equal 1st with 5 points after the swim competition ended. The best swim time was made by Ralph Clilverd (GBR) who swam the 300 metres in 4:58.4.
The 3rd and 4th days of the competition were devoted to the round-robin épée fencing. The best performance in fencing was by Sweden’s Åke Grönhagen, who won 24 of 26 matches. After three events, Georg de Laval led with 15 points, Lilliehöök second with 18 points, Åsbrink third with 20 points, and Clilverd in fourth with 22 points.
Georg de Laval maintained his lead after the riding competition. He finished third in the riding, for 18 points after four events, and a four-point lead over Lilliehöök going in to the final cross-country run. The riding was also won by Grönhagen, who moved up to 3rd place with 25 points.
After four events, Gösta Åsbrink was in fourth place with 27 points. He won the final event, the 4,000 metre run in 19:00.9, to finish with 28 points, but it was not enough. Gösta Lilliehöök finished 5th in the run to beat Åsbrink by one point, 27-28, and win the first Olympic modern pentathlon. Georg de Laval finished 12th in the run to fall to third place overall. In addition to his gold medal, Lilliehöök was awarded possession of the Challenge Trophy for the modern pentathlon, which had been donated for the Stockholm Olympics by de Coubertin.
The first non-Swedish finisher was an American, Lieutenant George Patton, who finished fifth, and later became a very famous American general. Patton attended college at the United States Military Academy at West Point (NY), where he competed in football, track, fencing, and shooting, graduating in 1909. He also excelled as a horseman in the military. His all-around athletic prowess made him a natural to compete in an event such as the modern pentathlon. He never came close to winning, because his worst event was the first one, the shooting, and it put him hopelessly behind. He scored only 150 points, finishing in 21st place. But in the remaining four events, he finished seventh, fourth, sixth, and third, to move up into fifth place overall.
As a military man, Patton wrote a summary of his competition in the modern pentathlon, and this has been well chronicled by Harold “Rusty” Wilson, Ph.D. in “A Legend in His Own Mind: The Olympic Experience of General George S. Patton, Jr.” In Wilson’s article, Patton’s actual performances are compared to those of Patton’s report. To be kind, it is obvious that Patton exaggerated his performances in his report.
Lieutenant Patton was eventually promoted to General and served with honor in Northern Africa and Europe during World War II. He led the United States 3rd Army, fighting against Rommel’s Africa Corps, participated in the United States’ invasion of Sicily, and at the Battle of the Bulge. His career has been immortalized in several biographies and also in an Academy Award winning movie of his life, entitled simply “Patton”.
All of the 32 competitors at Stockholm were men, and through 1996, women’s modern pentathlon was not contested at the Olympics, although it has been a World Championship event since 1981 and women débuted in Olympic modern pentathlon at Sydney in 2000. But a British woman did attempt to compete in the 1912 modern pentathlon.
The story was first reported in the newspapers on 7 July 1912, oddly in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The headline noted, “GIRL TO ENTER OLYMPIC GAMES. Miss Helen Preece, “Women’s Hope, To Take Part In The Contests To Be Held At Stockholm.” Sections of this story are as follows:
LONDON, July 6. - Englishwomen are expecting Miss Helen Preece, a 15-year-old horsewoman, to accomplish great things at the Olympic games at Stockholm this month.
Miss Preece, who will be the only female representative at the games, has won fame here as an expert horsewoman and athlete generally, and her abilities are not [un]known in the United States. At New York in November last, at the Madison Square Garden Horse Show, Miss Preece won outright the $1,000 gold cup, open to the world for riding, in addition to many other “blues.”
“I have entered for several contests there,” she said, “but my particular ambition is to carry off the first prize in the great competition. That is a stiff proposition, I admit, since it includes five different events: A cross-country ride of 4,000 meters (about two and one-half miles); riding over a course of 5,000 meters; swimming 300 meters; fencing and shooting with a revolver at a target twenty-five meters distant.
“A formidable list, you will agree, and all have to be won, but father and friends, under whose guidance I am now undergoing quite an arduous course of training, seem to have every confidence in me, and, of course, I myself am enthusiastic.
“I have obtained special leave of absence from my school in Hertfordshire, and my day’s work now commences as early as 5 o’clock every morning, and only ends with bedtime at 8 o’clock.
“A varied program is mapped out for me each day, but it always includes riding, shooting, swimming, running and walking practice, and today I have been put on a special diet, also, so that I should be absolutely fit for the Pentathlon on July 11.
“The one thing that worries me is the fact that I shall be the only woman competitor in this particular contest; it may make me nervous.”
Referring to her New York visit, Miss Preece said:
“I had a great time out there. Everybody was so good to me and I made many friends. The American women are fine riders and their sportsmanship is great. They seem to take a far greater active interest in sports generally than do the women in England.”
But Helen Preece was not allowed to enter the modern pentathlon and did not compete at Stockholm. Evidently she had trained for the modern pentathlon motivated by the fact that its rule book did not have a “gentlemen only” rule, as did the horse-riding rule book. Since Preece was primarily a rider, the modern pentathlon offered her a workaround. Preece’s Olympic ambitions were known in England well before the Courier-Journal USA article. For example, the 27 March 1912 edition of the London Standard published an article headlined, “ENGLAND’S GIRL CHAMPION, MISS PREECE’S OLYMPIC TASK, A MARVELLOUS CAREER”. The article stated, in part: “An English girl in her sixteenth year is about to enter the lists with the world’s best riders and athletes. She will figure among the hundreds of competitors in the Olympic games, open to the world, which will be held at Stockholm this summer.”
In addition, an article in The Tatler published on 3 April 1912 stated, in part: “Miss Helen Preece … is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who will ride, shoot, fence, and swim for England in the Olympic Games at Stockholm … Her special desire is to win the Pentathlon at Stockholm this summer, for which she is already training hard.”
Evidently Preece turned in a modern pentathlon entry form to the British Olympic Association (BOA). Robert de Courcy Laffan, Honorary Secretary of the BOA, wrote to the Stockholm organizing committee on 2 May 1912, “We have had an application from a lady to be allowed to enter for the Modern Pentathlon in the Olympic Games of Stockholm. I presume from your telegram of March 22nd stating that the Horse Riding Competitions are only open to gentlemen riders, that the Modern Pentathlon is not open to ladies. I do not however feel authorised to decide this question absolutely, and therefore beg to refer it to you for a definite decision.”
On 8 May 1912, Kristian Hellström, secretary of the Stockholm organizing committee forwarded a copy of the letter to Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin answered Hellström, presumably shortly thereafter, although the letter has no date:
“As to the Modern Pentathlon I am personnally [sic] opposed to the admittance of ladies as competitors in the Olympic Games. But as they are this time admitted as tennis players, swimmers etc. I do not see on what ground we should stand to refuse them in the Pentathlon. However, I repeat that I greatly regret the fact. Therefore I leave to you to decide and if you refuse or accept the engagement, I shall agree with you.”
Upon receipt of Coubertin’s letter, the Swedish Organizing Committee decided to put the matter to a vote. On 17 May 1912, the committee sent Laffen a letter: “With further reference to your favour of May 2nd, we beg to inform you that the Committee have decided, for various reasons, not to allow ladies to enter for the Modern Pentathlon in the forthcoming Olympic Games.”
Afterwards, Coubertin wrote of the situation in Revue Olympique, “The other day an application came signed by a neo-Amazon who wanted to compete in the Modern Pentathlon and the Swedish Committee, who was left free to decide in the absence of fixed legislation, refused that application.”
Thus, nearly two months prior to the Louisville Courier-Journal article, the refusal of Helen Preece’s modern pentathlon entry was communicated to the BOA. Although it is not clear when or how Preece was informed of the committee’s decision, the 23 May 1912 edition of Pearson’s Weekly published what appeared to be a letter from Helen Preece, which stated in part: “I am not sure if I was selected to ride for England in the Pentathlon in the coming Olympic Games, or if daddy entered me for it, but anyhow I mean to win if I can. The Pentathlon is not an ordinary kind of race; you have to be able to do all sorts of things well before you can compete in it.”
However, Laffen put the matter to rest for the public a few days later in a 31 May 1912 Sporting Life article, which stated, in part: “In one quarter it was suggested that there was a possibility of a lady competitor being included among the United Kingdom’s representatives. However, we can assure our readers that there is not the least likelihood of a lady being sent, and the Rev. Courcy de Laffan [sic], the hon. Sec. of the British Olympic Council, assured our representative yesterday that the rules laid down by the Swedish Olympic Committee precluded a lady from competing in the Modern Pentathlon.”
With her Olympic hopes dashed, Helen Preece continued her equitation career in England and emigrated to the USA prior to World War I. She married and with her husband set up a riding school in Aiken, South Carolina.
|Georg de Laval
|Patrik de Laval
|Jean de Mas Latrie
|Gunnar von Hohenthal
|Erik de Laval
|Johannes Blom Ussing
|Theodor von Zeilau