LONDON (Reuters) - Imagine a soldier trapped behind enemy lines. He fights his way out with his sword, swims across a lake, grabs the nearest horse, gallops through the forest and makes a last dash for freedom on foot, occasionally firing a pistol to fend off his adversaries.
That, in essence, is modern pentathlon, the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics.
The five-discipline sport celebrates its 100th birthday at London 2012 but critics argue that it is an anachronism, an esoteric event struggling to get television ratings in an already crowded Olympic schedule.
That is fiercely denied by Germany’s Klaus Schormann, the positively messianic president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union for the past 20 years who says the sport richly deserves to be called modern, especially in London where competitors are using laser pistols and electronic targets for the first time.
Once a sport dominated by military officers - including a notorious Russian cheat - modern pentathlon would not look out of place in a James Bond film now.
“Thanks for 100 years, let’s look forward to another 100 years. That is our goal,” said Schormann whose sport survived a vote in 2005 on its Olympic future.
Despite Schormann’s optimism, modern pentathlon’s days could be numbered. Next year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will pick 25 core sports for the 2020 Games onwards.
One sport will be cut from the programme and a new one will be introduced as the IOC seeks to keep the Games relevant to a younger audience.
Baseball and softball are competing with karate, roller sports, sports climbing, squash, wakeboard and the martial art of wushu for a spot in the 2020 Games, when the hosts will be either Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo, and Olympic analysts say modern pentathlon could be at risk of losing its place.
In London on Saturday, meanwhile, the competitors were fencing and swimming in the Olympic Park.
Then they were due to head to Greenwich Park for riding, running and shooting. By the time they get to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the athletes will be competing in one venue over the one day which should help the sport to be more televisual.
“It is a very compact sport now. I think Coubertin would be very proud,” Schormann said. “The sport is the most modern in the Olympics with all the technology we have, with laser shooting at electronic targets.”
Coubertin crusaded fervently for modern pentathlon’s inclusion in the Olympics. He wanted soldiers around the world to be involved in friendly competition.
The baron would have been turning in his grave over the exploits of Soviet military officer Boris Onischenko in the now-discontinued team event at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Competitors became suspicious about his fencing scores and he was found to have equipped his sword with a hidden circuit breaker that meant he could record a hit at the touch of a button. He was disqualified, whisked away in disgrace and never seen again outside the Soviet Union.
No sport would ever dare to boast that it is drug-free but Schormann argues that the new format in modern pentathlon offers no real advantage to the cheat looking for a chemical boost.
“You are competing in so many disciplines (fencing, swimming, riding, running and shooting) that it makes no sense. You are training your body in balance with the five disciplines,” he told Reuters in an interview at the fencing hall, barely able to contain his enthusiasm as modern pentathlon stepped into the Olympic limelight for a day.
Detractors say it is an elitist sport that is far too expensive.
Schormann said: “We are reducing the costs all the time. You just load your battery to shoot. The horses are supplied by the organizing committee. You use your fencing equipment for years.”
The competitors have changed too. “They are not any longer dominated by military people. We have soldiers and police but 80 percent or more nowadays are students,” he said.
Schormann, himself a modern pentathlete for Germany from 1961-1974, said: “It’s exciting for the spectators and the athletes. They love it. To celebrate another 100 years for our sport, that is the goal for the future.”
(This version of the story has been corrected to fix year in 11th paragraph)
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Clare Fallon