Modern Pentathlon: Complete athlete, incomplete recognition

The unsung champion
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The Independent Online

Georgina Harland was not mentioned, even in passing, at last Sunday's BBC sporting beanfeast. Not that she expected to be, even less invited, and anyway she would have been too busy to attend as she was abroad winning a World Cup, just as the awards-scoopers of rugby did.

Yet Harland, or "George" as she is known in her business, is currently Britain's supreme sportswoman, an athletic all-rounder who excels in five sports with dash and dexterity, although only a handful have heard of her, or know of her remarkable exploits this year.

Paula Radcliffe runs the legs off the rest of the world, but could she also out-ride, out-swim, out-fence and out-shoot them, as Stephanie Cook did to win a gold medal in Sydney and Harland is doing now in global competition on the approach road to Athens?

Last weekend saw this thoroughly modern pentathlete win her own gold medal in the World Cup final just four months after becoming the European champion. A month earlier she was a member of the British team who won the world championship.

Not bad for an unsung heroine, or for a sport which also suffers from lack of recognition on the box, in the popular prints and now from the two Government agencies who are supposed to succour this sort of thing.

Both Sport England and UK Sport, who are guilty of pandering to sport's power-players at the expense of arguably worthier and frequently more successful activities, have chosen to exclude modern pentathlon from their list of those sports given priority funding - probably because some of those who advise them where Lottery money should be spent seem to think it is something they used to see on Come Dancing.

This despite the fact that Kate Allenby, bronze medallist behind Cook in Sydney, was also third in the individual world championships, Heather Fell is the world junior champion and Lyndsay Weedon got a bronze, and the pair, along with Katy Livingstone, won the team event.

Aristotle was on the ball when he mused back in ancient Greece: "The most beautiful athletes of all are the pentathletes," an observation endorsed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who brought the sport into the modern Games "because it produces the ideal, complete athlete."

Modern pentathlon is an understated activity in Britain but it is an efficiently run and successful one, which makes all the more questionable the decision of the sporting quangos to treat it with such indifference.

It has an outstanding track record, based on the team gold medal brought home from Montreal by Jim Fox and his men in 1976. Now the Fox cubs by and large are vixens. Alas, Fox can no longer be their cheerleader-in-chief, as he is stricken with Parkinson's disease and is wheelchair-bound. But Harland, who was not born when Fox led the gallop to glory, says he has been inspirational. Even before Sydney, where she was a reserve, she had been identified by Fox as the one to watch for in Athens. It was Fox who helped entice the world's leading coach, Jan Bartu of the Czech Republic, a rival in Montreal, to forsake a similar job with the US team to become Britain's performance director. Under him and Hungary's Istvan Nemeth, Britain's women have won more than a score of Olympic, world and European medals since 1977.

While the 25-year-old Harland receives personal funding as an élite athlete, it is the absence of significant support from the Lottery at grass-roots level which disappoints her and others associated with the sport. "You only have to look at the last Olympic Games and the success we have had since to wonder why we have been left off the list. We have an excellent programme, some outstanding results both at senior and junior level and the people who manage the sport are doing a great job. I really don't know what's behind it. I can't believe it is because of political correctness as shooting is involved. After all, we only use air pistols in a very controlled environment. You don't imagine you are shooting at somebody or something at the other end. It's a mind game, really."

The Kent-born Harland came into modern pentathlon through the traditional route of the Pony Club. She went to Princess Anne's public school at Benenden, but there is nothing "jolly super" about her. She has a pragmatic outlook, a bubbly personality and an honours degree in geography obtained at Loughborough University before she moved to Bath, now the south-west branch of the English Sports Institute, which has magnificent new £23m facilities that are among the best in the land.

Her agonising schedule, both in daily preparation and then in a day-long competition that is compressed into less than 12 hours from dawn to dusk with barely time to take a deep breath, let alone a bite of a sandwich, would make the pampered prima donnas of the Premiership go weak at the knees.

"Every day you feel knackered after training, but that's what it should be about. It's my job. I always tell myself that if I'm not training hard today, someone else will be," she says.

Harland says she was not surprised that the sport did not get a mention last Sunday. "We've rather got used to it. But it would be nice to be involved - maybe next year." BBC take note.