The announcement last week that laser pistols will replace real guns in the Modern Pentathlon for London 2012 leaves the future of the sport in some doubt.
The UIPM (Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne) claim that cost will be reduced by two-thirds, that all countries in the world will now be able to compete, and that security and safety concerns can now be bypassed. It reports that the results of several years of trials were successfully implemented at both the world cup in June and the recent Youth Olympics in Singapore. Honorary President of the UIPM, Prince Albert of Monaco, added his support: ‘they [laser guns] will be easier to carry around, and take on aeroplanes. It’s the way of the future.’
Some within the sport remain sceptical, however, citing lack of evidence of cost-savings and limited testing. To challenge the decision based on cost, however, is to miss the point. Many Olympic Sports are expensive, but there is no call to use still-standing bicycles to reduce track costs, ergometers for rowing, or the Wii for tennis.
Other Olympic shooting disciplines currently have no plans to go down the laser route, presumably realising why the decision is such a foolish one: using a virtual gun crosses the line between a sport and a game.
For an event that has already made one radical change since Beijing (merging running and shooting, to create a discipline requiring entirely different skills) this latest decision appears fuelled by criticism of Modern Pentathlon as a sport of the European elite.
Yes the event is not particularly accessible to all, but neither are several of the 26 summer sports. It is however, a tough test of a variety of aptitudes, in which the men’s Gold medal has been shared by seven different countries since the war (the same as the Men’s 100m). Plus it is the only event especially created for the Olympics, and London 2012 will mark one hundred years of continuous appearances at the Games.
Progress is vital for the Olympic Games to remain contemporary, but this must not be at the expense of sporting merit, and nor should advancement ignore history. Using laser puts Pentathlon firmly on the slippery slope to the Olympic graveyard alongside tug-of-war, basque pelota, and trampoline. The Olympics doesn’t need virtual sport. If Modern Pentathlon is still an Olympic sport in Doha/Durban/Rabat/Tokyo 2020, expect a morning of underwater fencing, followed by an afternoon knock-out of Grand Theft Horso.