From Pony Club to pistol whip in one Fell swoop

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The Independent Online

Women's boxing may have punched its way into the Olympics but if it's a bunch-of-fives fight to the finish between feisty females that quickens the pulses then the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace is the place to be today.

While the modern pentathlon may sound like something that originated down the road in Penge, home of the Frank and Peggy Spencer formation team (Come Dancing aficionados will remember them well), it is actually the truest and most taxing of all the pursuits practised in the Games.

Aristotle was certainly on the ball when he mused back in ancient Greece: "The most beautiful sportsmen of all are the pentathletes," an observation endorsed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who brought the sport into the modern Games a century ago "because it produces the ideal, complete athlete, testing a man's moral qualities as well as his physical resources and skills".

However these days it is the sportswomen – particularly the British – who have taken over as the dominant force in the five events, thus requiring some updating of old Aristotle's philosophy, as Heather Fell, the Olympic silver medallist in Beijing, hopes to emphasise today.

Some 165 competitors from 34 countries, a third of them women, have been battling it out at the Palace in what is a full-scale dress rehearsal for the run-shoot-swim-fence-ride event at the London Games. The Plymouth-born Fell, 26, goes into today's dawn-to-dusk women's final as the world's No 1 – and something of an unsung heroine of British sport.

For while what she does may be called modern it is hardly fashionable, which is apparently why the sport's international governing body, who have already compressed five days of competition into one, now combine the running and pistol-shooting to make it a thoroughly modern pentathlon.

The new run'n'shoot is rather like the biathlon without the skis, creating, they believe, a sexier image, something akin to what James Bond might get up to. Or in the case of the girls, a latter-day Lara Croft.

The "mod pen" remains the ultimate Olympic test, which makes it all the more galling that some International Olympic Committee members have been trying to boot it out, complaining that it is insufficiently spectator-friendly and telegenic. Shame on them.

Britain has a terrific track record, founded on the team gold medal brought home from Montreal by Jim Fox and his men in 1976, and the World Championship won by Richard Phelps in 1993. But since girls were allowed in Sydney, it has been they who have had greater success, with four medals in the last three Olympics: gold for Steff Cook in Sydney in 2000, where women first competed, while Kate Allenby also won bronze; Georgina Harland's bronze in Athens in 2004; and Fell's Beijing silver.

Fell almost quit the sport three years ago when, as a world junior champion, she lost funding after a series of injuries prevented her from competing. But, she says, "it gave me the kick up the arse I needed" and she went home from Bath to the family farmhouse on Dartmoor to get her multi-sporting act together again, working part-time as a barmaid, swimming coach and physiotherapist.

She says getting used to the new combined running and shooting has been hard graft. "It's pretty difficult to hold a gun steady when your heart is pounding away after running a kilometre, then setting off to do it all over again, and again."

Like team-mates Mhairi Spence, Katy Livingston and Freyja Prentice, all through to today's final, Fell typifes a sporting combination of beauty and the beef. They could be candidates for the catwalk rather than the pool and piste.

Fell says the reason why Britain's women pentathletes are on top has much to do with girls progressing through the Pony Club, as she did. "I think pentathlon is actually more a girlie sport anyway. By that I mean it appeals more to girls." One wonders what Aristotle and the Baron would have had to say about that. Or Jim Fox, who will be cheering them today.