While the rest of London was still sleeping on Saturday morning, 36 men got up, put on their white fencing uniforms and headed to the Copper Box, their first step in an important daylong quest to win one of the more bizarre and grueling Olympic events.
By 8:40, they had lined up to a half-empty crowd, holding their épées as Led Zeppelin played and a booming announcer called their names one by one.
They began to fence, with several showdowns going on simultaneously and each athlete competing in 35 one-touch matches over three hours. The announcer struggled to keep tabs on all of the results as the sound of metal clanging was interrupted by the occasional yell of triumph or defeat.
It was the first of many steps that make up a 100-year-old Olympic tradition: the modern pentathlon.
In a single day, athletes complete four events: fencing, swimming, riding an unknown horse and a new combined event of running 3,000 meters and shooting. The sport was created by the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, specifically for the Summer Games — as legend has it, to test the qualities of the ideal soldier.
“We are absolutely convinced they are the complete athlete of the games,” said Joel Bouzou of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, the sport’s governing body.
But the pentathlon leaves many fans scratching their heads. Organizers hope the new combined event will draw more eyes to the sport, and the substitution of laser pistols for guns that fire bullets has made the sport more environmentally friendly and helped athletes in countries with stricter gun control laws. “Now literally everyone can practice the sport from toddlers up!” a guide from the U.I.P.M. reads.
One thing that has stayed the same is the sport’s demand for endurance. The three-hour fencing competition left at least one athlete lying on the floor in exhaustion.
The athletes next headed to the nearby aquatics center, noshing on PowerBars, getting massages and chugging water between events. Before heading into the pool, David Svoboda of the Czech Republic was in first place, winning 26 fencing matches and losing 9, matching the Olympic record.
Sonia Farrington, a fan from Hampshire, England, who showed up to the morning session with Union Jack antennas, said she had been following modern pentathlon since she attended the Athens Games in 2004. “The five different things they do are all so different,” she said. “It must be exhausting.”
The athletes plunged into the pool at the London Aquatics Centre for a 200-meter freestyle swim. Amro El Geziry of Egypt swam the fastest time, 1 minute 55.7 seconds, an Olympic record. With only two events down, it was still anyone’s pentathlon.
The crowd and the athletes next raced across town to Greenwich Park for perhaps the most dramatic of the modern pentathlon’s events: the riding of the unknown horse.
The athletes, now in helmets and riding breeches, were given only 20 minutes to bond with their horses before taking them through a daring jumping course in front of thousands of people. Points were deducted for a horse’s refusal to jump a fence, a knocked-down bar or a time beyond 75 seconds, the optimum time.
The colorful fences, including tributes to “Abbey Road,” Stonehenge and Charles Darwin, looked easy enough, but the crowd was noticeably tense. What if a rider was thrown off a horse?
“There might be some thrills and spills,” the announcer said over the loudspeaker. He asked the audience to resist the desire to have “a collective intake of breath” should a rider fall. The crowd tried, but failed throughout the competition.
The American Dennis Bowsher had one of the earliest refusals, his horse Vito stopping at the first jump. Bowsher restarted the course, and Vito jumped it the second time, but trampled “Abbey Road.”
“It was the type of horse in warm-up that didn’t need any leg,” Bowsher said. “And all of a sudden we get out here, and it needed that leg, and that’s why we screwed up that first jump. Then I was kind of able to dig in and get him around the rest of the course.”
But the horse ridden by Woojin Hwang of South Korea seemed to think the event was a rodeo. After tossing Hwang to the ground, and being remounted, the horse hit barrier after barrier, for 180 points in obstacle deductions and 284 more in time penalties. But the crowd loved Hwang, applauding his finish.
The horse of Ukraine’s Dmytro Kirpulyanskyy, Wonderboy, nearly flung him off, leaving him clinging to the saddle.
Samuel Weale’s name garnered loud cheers. A member of Britain’s team, Weale joked with his friend Steven Cotton as children about one becoming an Olympian and the other becoming a journalist. On Saturday, Cotton was in the press seating as Weale competed.
“It’s surreal,” Cotton said, watching Weale ride his horse. Weale hit only one bar and had four time penalties. “He’s got to be pleased with that, I think,” Cotton said, noting that his score was 1176, not far-off a perfect 1200.
Weale said: “It was a fantastic environment, and I wish every pentathlon competition we went to had an environment like this.”
Russia had won the last three gold medals in men’s modern pentathlon, but heading into the final, it was Svoboda of the Czech Republic and Cao Zhongrong of China who led.
As the sun set, the runners began a 3,000-meter cross-country race, interrupted by three laser shootings in the middle of the park, with a confused but joyous audience trying to make sense of it all.
After the épées were clanked, the waters splashed, the horses met and the laser guns fired, it was Svoboda of the Czech Republic who won the gold medal. Cao took the silver, and Adam Marosi of Hungary the bronze.
The routine will be repeated Sunday in the women’s event, which was added at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Whoever claims gold then will not only walk away with the last official medal of the London Games, but have to muster enough energy to make it to the closing ceremony.