With modern pentathlon staging its World Championships in Cairo, Laura Winter learns about the sport where Great Britain’s women carry the flag
Modern pentathlon is one of the few sports in this country where gender equality is genuinely equal. Membership and participation are split fifty-fifty between the sexes, and that will be reflected in the make-up of the governing board from next year. Not only that, men and women compete over the same distances. The only difference is that, on the world stage, the women are rather more successful than the men.
Nowhere is that better illustrated that at the Olympics where Team GB have won five medals in the five Games that the sport has been included for women – from the gold and bronze of Steph Cook and Kate Allenby in Sydney in 2000, through Georgina Harland’s third place four years later, and Heather Fell’s silver in Beijing, a medal emulated by Sam Murray in London in 2012. Britain’s men have not been in sight of the podium since modern pentathlon was inaugurated into the Olympics at the Stockholm Games in 1912.
That success, under the guidance of performance director Jan Bartu, has paved the way for large numbers of women to take up the sport, debunking the usual statistics in which female sportswomen trail their male counterpart when it comes to participation.
With the World Championships underway in Cairo this week, the sport’s CEO Danielle Every says: “There is no doubt our women’s programme has arguably been the best in the world over the last 15 years. I am immensely proud of that. To see women lead the way in performance fills me with pride. It is testament to the hard work of Jan and the team who have created a women’s programme that is world-leading and hopefully we will continue that into the future.
“Funnily enough, if you speak to the boys, they don’t like it at all! And I’m sure the women are quick to remind them of the history. But that only drives the men on.
“It was a big motivational factor for me joining [modern pentathlon] from football. It’s a sport that showcases men and women and the equality across the sport. I have two daughters and I’ve enjoyed playing sport my whole life. More than anything now in today’s society it’s so important for them to have strong role models and to see women emulate success on the bigger stage. These sports seem far more accessible for young girls now, and the stigma behind men’s and women’s sport is on the way out.
“The success of our female Olympic athletes is having an impact on the next generation of girls and it’s an important part of what we do.”
Modern pentathlon has been spared allegations of sexism and bullying which have prevailed in sports such as rowing and cycling. Bartu emphasises that although a performance environment is somewhat of a “pressure cooker”, creating and nurturing a healthy culture is paramount at Pentathlon GB.
He said: “It may sound like a cliche, or that I am paying lip service, but it is an open-door policy here. We encourage people to come to us if they have any problems, to speak to whoever from the coaching and management team. It is our responsibility to communicate it properly and hopefully address it in a constructive way.
“There is a lot of internal competition in this environment – it is a pressure cooker. This is the killing zone. It’s not easy, but it’s an environment that, if managed properly and respectfully, the strong individual can maximise potential within the team environment.”
That performance bubble based at Bath University can make or break an athlete. For Sam Murray, success at London 2012 gave way to heartbreak at Rio 2016. But for up-and-coming athletes like Kate French, who was fifth in Rio, and Jo Muir, who has “podium potential”, the success of the recent past serves only to motivate and inspire.
“Success breeds success,” said 22-year-old Muir. “I came down to Bath five years ago when Mhairi Spence was competing, and Katie Livingstone was at the end of her career. Sam had just won her Olympic medal. To train with those girls and to have them pushing you on – it’s really positive. I don’t see it as pressure, or a negative.
“It shows what’s possible, I see what Sam does. I’m just a normal girl like that and it makes you realise anything is achievable. The squad is competitive, but in a good way.”
Alongside Muir, 26-year-old French is enjoying a rich vein of form this season after an impressive Olympic debut. She claimed a silver medal at the first World Cup of the year, before winning the first World Cup of her career in Cairo by 30 seconds.
She has topped the women’s World Cup standings and goes into the World Championships with a target on her back. And she’s aware of the talk about successful British women, but refuses to buckle under the weight of expectation.
“There’s always talk,” she said. “It’s pressure, but it’s good – you want to live up to that success. It pushes you on and makes you feel like you should set standards higher. You strive to do the best you can.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.