Thursday, July 31, 2008

The ideal soldier in Beijing

The Olympic Games are almost upon us. Which contests are you most looking forward to? I tend to like them all, even the events that aren't immediately understood as sport, like table tennis, rhythmic gymnastics and archery.

One event that dates back to ancient Greece is the pentathlon. In its modern incarnation, athletes must excel at five separate sports: horse-jumping, fencing, shooting, swimming and running. All of these are part of the Olympic Games already, so why the odd amalgamation of seemingly random events?

Isn't it obvious? The five events paint a romantic vision of a military liaison on horseback. When his mount is brought down behind enemy lines, he must fight with pistol and sword, swim across a raging river and deliver his message on foot. The pentathlete is the ideal soldier.

It begs the question, which country can offer the world this soldier? Which military superpower has dominated Aristotle's beloved pentathlon?

After a century of Olympic contests, there are two countries in a dead heat, with medal counts that far exceed the nearest competitor. You probably guessed it -- Hungary and Sweden.

"The most perfect sportsmen, therefore, are the pentathletes because in their bodies strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony."

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