Allenby and Cook aim for high fives

Britain's modern pentathlon duo are heading for Sydney harbouring genuine medal ambitions
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Twelve hours, five sports, one gold medal. "Easy," says Kate Allenby who, together with Steph Cook, was yesterday named in Britain's duo of modern pentathletes for the Sydney Olympics next month.

Twelve hours, five sports, one gold medal. "Easy," says Kate Allenby who, together with Steph Cook, was yesterday named in Britain's duo of modern pentathletes for the Sydney Olympics next month.

"That's the way I like it. That's the format I'm used to," Allenby said when asked about the peculiar demands of a sport that in Sydney, on the final day of the Games, 1 October, will see her rise at 5am to ready herself for a date with destiny on the shooting range two hours later.

For most people, the Olympic timetable is something they use to work out which sport will be showing on the television next. For pentathletes like Allenby and Cook, their Olympic timetable is a rapid procession through the five disciplines of the modern pentathlon. At 9.30am comes the start of the second event, with two hours of thrusting and parrying against each of 23 rivals in the fencing salle. At 12.30pm there is a gut-busting 200 metre swim. Towelled down, at 1.30pm, they must negotiate 12 fences on a horse they met only 20 minutes earlier. Respite only comes at around 5.15pm, after the finish of the decisive 3,000m run.

"I've been coached by someone who normally trains track athletes," Allenby says. "He's never had to deal with someone who goes to the starting line of their race already exhausted."

Modern pentathlon is a sport that demands precision in the shoot, explosive power in the fencing, speed in the water, stamina on the run, and even a kindly way with animals. Sort of Superman meets Dr Dolittle.

The sport aims to discover the all-round sporting master, one of the modern Games' few real links with the Olympics of ancient Greece, where the winner of the pentathlon was regarded as the victor ludorum. Modern pentathlon ought, therefore, to be the epitome of the Olympics, especially since it was invented by the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

"The most perfect sportsmen are the pentathletes because in their bodies, strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony," the Baron said before the sport made its debut at the 1912 Stockholm Games, where a certain Lieutenant George Patton finished fifth after missing the target in the shooting. It was only 32 years later that General Patton managed to shoot his way to Berlin with his pearl-handled revolvers.

But, sad to relate, the five-discipline sport was nearly out on its ear less than a decade ago, no longer wanted among the synchronised swimmers and beach volleyball players who make up the Olympics' five-ringed circus of the TV age.

To its credit, modern pentathlon has somehow dragged itself back from the brink of Olympic oblivion, re-organised itself into a single-day competition, and come out on the other side as a right-on sport for the 21st century. The fact that the son of Juan Antonio Samaranch, De Coubertin's successor as president of the International Olympic Committee, now heads the modern pentathlon international federation is, of course, just coincidental.

As part of the reform process of a sport that was written off as a militaristic anachronism, the Sydney Games will also be the first Olympics where female modern pentathletes have been allowed to compete, and in Allenby and Cook, Britain will be fielding a particularly strong duo, both with real medal chances.

From beginning as a six-year-old with the Spooners and West Dartmoor Pony Club, Allenby, aged 26, was European champion in 1997 and World Cup overall winner in 1998. She finished sixth in the recent World Championships to finally secure her place in the British team.

The 28-year-old Cook had made the team earlier, winning an Olympic qualifying event in March. She has since won a silver medal at the European Championships and finished ninth at the worlds. In a sport where a centimetre off target in the shoot, or the unlucky draw of a volatile pony can make the difference between first and 12th, both women are forces to be reckoned with in Sydney.

"Pentathlon can be a pretty unpredictable event," Allenby said yesterday, in a break from training at the University of Bath centre of excellence, where she, Cook and the rest of the British élite squad is based. "There's probably six girls out there who could win it on the day. It's just a matter of having a day where you perform perfectly in all five disciplines."

With a fairly modest £400,000 annual budget of Lottery funds for a 20-strong squad, the Bath centre has already been producing results, with the women especially delivering the goods, in the form of one gold and two silver World Championship team medals in the last two years. Sadly, there will be no team event in Sydney (the team manager, Dominic Mahoney, won Olympic team bronze in 1988, the last British medal in this sport). And even 14th place at this year's World Championships was not good enough to get another Briton, Georgina Harland, one of the slots allocated to each nation.

Like all sport at this level, modern pentathlon demands total dedication. Cook, who is a qualified GP, gave up her medical practice to concentrate on her Olympic training. "There will be a lot of excitement, a lot of pressure in Sydney," she says. "Neither Kate or myself, or any of the other competitors, will have ever experienced that sort of pressure before."

Cook is rated to be at least one minute faster over the 3,000m run than any other pentathlete (she won a cross-country Blue at Oxford University). Under the handicap system employed by the sport, the competition's points leader after four events is sent off with a lead over the second-placed pentathlete equivalent to her points advantage - thus, whoever crosses the finishing line first will be the gold medallist. If, come the run in Sydney on the final day of the Olympics, Cook starts within one minute of the leader, or Allenby is handily placed (she has been in the top three of her last three World Cups), then success will be within their reach.

Yet according to Allenby, the gold medallist will be the woman who succeeds in the pentathlon's sixth discipline: "The person who wins in Sydney will be the person who wins up here," she says, tapping the side of her head.