Sydney successes drive disciplined pursuit of higher fives

With a double medal haul four years ago, Britain's female modern pentathletes are still at the front of the pack.
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Sydney with knobs on. That's the mighty aim of Kate Allenby and Georgina Harland, the two modern pentathletes who will be representing Great Britain at next month's Olympics. Given their world standings and experience of winning medals, they may yet return from Greece with gold and silver between them. That is what is required to top the British haul from their event in Australia.

Four years ago, Allenby, now 30, won the bronze behind her compatriot, Stephanie Cook, who took the gold. Harland, 26, who travelled Down Under as a reserve, had to settle for cheering from the sidelines.

The trio will all be at this summer's Games, albeit in different roles. Cook, now Dr Cook, who retired from competition in 2001 to pick up her medical career as a hospital doctor, will be working as a BBC commentator, at least for the one day of the women's modern pentathlon, on 27 August.

Harland, the reigning European champion and world No 1, will be seeking a second top spot on an Athens podium. She won the World Cup final that doubled as the Olympic test event in the city last December. Allenby, who has struggled with injuries but has been back in fine form lately, taking silver at this year's World Championship, wants a glorious last hoorah and to return home with "a big smile and lots of happy memories".

A medal would also see her replicate Denise Lewis's unique Olympic achievement: Lewis is the only woman ever to have won medals in two consecutive Games in any individual event. She did this by taking the heptathlon bronze in 1996 and then the gold in 2000.

"Both of us know we're both in a position to go and get a medal," says Allenby, after her final training session at the pair's Bath University base. Next stop is a high-altitude training camp in the French Pyrenees, from where they will depart for Athens three days before their event.

"We've got every opportunity to get two medals again. It's a fresh sheet of paper, yes. The form guide goes out of the window going into the Games. But we're determined to repeat our Sydney success."

Talking about her persistent shoulder and shin injuries, which she felt at one stage would mean her missing the Games, Allenby adds: "I'm not really where I wanted to be because of all the injuries but things are starting to come good now. I've learned to relax more and I've realised that if I'm stressed I don't compete as well. I enjoy competing more now."

Allenby, like Harland and Cook, came to modern pentathlon via the Pony Club, but if the stereotype of its participants is genteel, then modern pentathlon, while noble in origin, is truly gruelling. In the eighth century BC, its ancient equivalent comprised running, broad-jumping, javelin throwing, discus throwing and wrestling, a combination that hundreds of years later led Aristotle to declare: "Pentathletes have the most beautiful bodies because they are constructed for strength and speed in perfect harmony."

The modern sport, comprising shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running, has its roots in the legend of a Napoleonic cavalry officer on a lone mission to deliver an urgent dispatch. He rode over challenging terrain on an unfamiliar horse, shooting at his pursuers. He duelled with a sword when his ammunition ran out, dumped his horse to swim across a river and then ran the final leg of his journey. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, used the tale as a basis when modern pentathlon was introduced at the 1912 Games in Stockholm.

In Athens, as in Sydney, where women participated at competition level in the Olympics for the first time, the five disciplines are completed in a day, with shooting first, followed by fencing, swimming, riding and running.

In the shooting each competitor takes 20 shots at a target 10m away with a 4.5mm calibre air pistol. The fencing is a round-robin series of bouts lasting a maximum of a minute each. A 200m freestyle swim is followed by show jumping on unfamiliar horses, drawn by ballot.

Each discipline earns points and the athletes begin their fifth and final task, a 3,000m run, with a staggered start according to their points, the points leader going out first. The upshot is that whoever crosses the line first in the run is the overall winner.

The scheduling in Athens means all five disciplines will be completed within eight hours, a shorter period than in any previous international event. This is no bad thing, according to Harland, who sees a benefit in keeping active for the whole period.

"You just go with the flow," she says. "You do things like you pack your jodhpurs with your swimming stuff so that when you get out of the pool you don't climb into a tracksuit and then climb into your jodhpurs. You move straight over to the riding. When you have that extra time to sit down in between events that gives your body time to say, 'Okay, I'm tired now'. If you keep going you just get on with it."

The pair say they will both draw on their contrasting Olympics of four years ago for inspiration. "There were some great experiences in Sydney but you've got to bottle that, take out what you need to learn from it, forget the rest," Allenby says. "It's about getting your head - the enormity of what you're doing. Having dealt with that once is important."

Harland always dreamt of attending an opening ceremony, something she achieved in Sydney but will miss in Greece because of the training camp in France. "But being out there competing is the other half of the dream," she says. In less than a month, that dream will have come true, and under the gaze of Cook, who Harland says will be "probably champing at the bit" to join in.

Harland knows what that feels like. That's why this year is Sydney with knobs on.