National Post: Modern pentathlon and how it became an ‘orphaned sport': An inside look at the Olympic event you’ve probably never heard of

This article was originally published on the National Post website.

Donna Vakalis, who competes in pentathlon, a sport that combines fencing, equestrian, swimming, running and shooting, is seen here.                                                                                             Tim Fraser for National Post

Donna Vakalis, who competes in pentathlon, a sport that combines fencing, equestrian, swimming, running and shooting, is seen here.
                                                                                            Tim Fraser for National Post

Remo Cigagna, a self-described “financial social worker for the well-to-do” in Toronto, was trying to explain why he spends 30 hours of his week volunteering both his time and expertise for a sport that hardly anybody knows. Even he seemed surprised: “Two years ago, I didn’t know how to spell pentathlon — I thought it had two ‘Hs’ in it, OK?”

It only has one H, but in Canada, it has two Cigagnas. His daughter, Beatrice, is part of the national program at Pentathlon Canada, the sport’s impoverished governing body. Remo Cigagna said his wife used guilt to nudge him toward a closer examination of the group’s financial picture.

“I know how to read and prepare a financial statement,” Remo said with a shrug. “And I looked at it and I said, ‘Aw, sh–, these guys need help.’”

Modern pentathlon is not quite as modern as its name might suggest. It was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1912, with the idea it would highlight the qualities expected of a soldier: Shooting, fencing, swimming, running and riding a horse. Before becoming one of the most famous commanders in U.S. military history, George S. Patton competed in pentathlon, finishing fifth at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

Those were the glory years.

Today, outside its power base in Europe, pentathlon has become a curiosity, an oddity in the Olympic roster that has narrowly escaped eviction from the Games in recent years. The case in Canada is more acute, with one amateur sports insider suggesting pentathlon has become an “orphaned sport.”

Donna Vakalis estimated that it costs between $40,000 and $60,000 to compete in pentathlon in any given year. That can include travel and lodging, as well as training for all five disciplines and corresponding equipment needs.                                                                                             Tim Fraser for National Post 

Donna Vakalis estimated that it costs between $40,000 and $60,000 to compete in pentathlon in any given year. That can include travel and lodging, as well as training for all five disciplines and corresponding equipment needs.
                                                                                            Tim Fraser for National Post 

Canada will send two women and two men to compete at the Pan American Games this summer, but it will not fund those athletes very well. The top Canadians often pay from their own pocket to compete and to train, with minimal government assistance.

At least one of those athletes is able to compete largely through the kindness and charity of friends and family. It raises the question of what moral responsibility Canadians have when it comes to financial support of athletes who compete under the maple leaf.

Alternatively, should the primary goal of government funding of amateur sports be to fund medals, or should it be to fund athletes?

Cigagna is now treasurer of Pentathlon Canada. According to the financial statement that he prepared, the organization had $55,965 in revenue last year, but had to spend $87,648, bleeding much of its reserves. If current trends persist, he said, it is possible the national governing body will only have $10,000 left in reserve by the end of this year.

“And then we would basically have to fold the tent and all become greeters at Wal-Mart,” Cigagna said. “That’s the hard reality of it.”

He went to Ottawa in February, knocking on doors, asking about money from the groups that control funding for amateur sports. He knocked on every door he could find, knowing how hard it would be to sell an organization that might only have 200 participants across the country.

“The reality is, I’m in survival mode,” he said. “I either have to make it happen or I die.”

***

Mike Vakalis was 21 years old when he left Greece for a new life in Canada. He married a Canadian woman, Loretta, and together they adopted a girl who was just three days old. Donna, their only child, developed a passion for reading, and also for athletics. She often found a way to combine the two, even during swim meets.

“As she was waiting, she was reading her textbooks,” her father said. “Her event would come up, Donna would put the books down, go and swim her 100 or 200, finish, go back and read her books again.”

She was a competing member of the varsity fencing and cross-country teams this season, and worked out as an invited guest of the swimming team.                                                                                         Tim Fraser for National Post

She was a competing member of the varsity fencing and cross-country teams this season, and worked out as an invited guest of the swimming team.
                                                                                        Tim Fraser for National Post

Not far from their home in Burlington, Ont., Donna also had access to a riding club in the city’s more rural north end. That led her into pentathlon, which she has had to balance with her education, now as a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

That balancing act does not necessarily make Vakalis unique among Canadian amateur athletes. What seems to set her apart is the financial aspect, a dagger amid the other things she has juggle.

She estimated that it costs between $40,000 and $60,000 to compete in pentathlon in any given year. That can include travel and lodging, as well as training for all five disciplines and corresponding equipment needs. Her government support is from a provincial fund in Ontario, Quest for Gold, and she said it will provide her with $4,500 this year.

That would leave her responsible for the rest. She is a university student, and her father is now a retired denturist. Her mother died of cancer in 2000.

Donna gets by with help from friends, and also from the university. She has a scholarship for school, which helps. She sometimes holds fencing workshops, speaks at schools with a group that pays her a $200 honorarium, runs her department’s YouTube channel and also works as a teaching assistant. That last job was placed on hold for a month this winter as teaching assistants walked off the job across campus, seeking better wages.

Some days, she might pick up one of those odd jobs at the expense of training.

“I have to think, ‘I’ll miss fencing, but those five hours will buy me two lessons,’” she said.

In another effort to cut down on costs, Vakalis trains with varsity teams on campus. She was a competing member of the varsity fencing and cross-country teams this season, and worked out as an invited guest of the swimming team.

“We’ve allowed her to be on the team even if, maybe, she isn’t quite good enough,” said Byron MacDonald, the school’s long-time swim team coach. “My understanding is she’s actually a pretty good runner … but she would not have made the swim team. She’s close enough that she doesn’t get in the way, and it’s nice to have her here.”

Vakalis finished 10th at the Pan American Games four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, and she finished 29th at the London Olympics, three years ago. She is expected to be one of the two women who will represent Canada at the Pan Am Games this summer.

“It’s a little bit like playing Tetris; you’re always playing with these pieces, except it’s a budget,” she said. “It’s a budget of both time and resources. Unfortunately, I feel I’m really good at this Tetris game, but I can’t always make the best move because the piece is there, but there are these other forces.”

Those forces prevent her from attending training camps abroad, denying her the chance to match skills with the best in her field. They force her to confront the kind of choices that other athletes in other sports might not have to face.

Vakalis finished 29th at the London Olympics, three years ago. She is expected to be one of the two women who will represent Canada at the Pan Am Games this summer.                                                                                 Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Vakalis finished 29th at the London Olympics, three years ago. She is expected to be one of the two women who will represent Canada at the Pan Am Games this summer.
                                                                                
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

“She also has the ability to, every day — and even on the spot — rearrange and fit stuff in like you have no idea,” said Tara Norton, a veteran Canadian triathlete. “And what is to me sad, as a professional athlete, is that I see her [short-change] workouts because she’s trying to fit everything in.”

Norton and her husband invited Vakalis to live in the basement of their Toronto home in the lead-up to the London Olympics. They did not charge her rent. She still lives in their basement, and while she has insisted on paying rent, it is far below market value.

“I see how much easier it would be for her to reach that top level if she didn’t have to worry so much, financially,” Norton said. “Definitely, her workouts suffer because of everything.”

***

Only one officer from the U.S. military competed when pentathlon made its debut on the modern Olympic stage in 1912. Lieutenant George S. Patton beat a lieutenant from the French army in fencing, en route to a 23-6 record in the discipline. He finished seventh in the swim, but only 21st in shooting.

“I don’t know whether I lost my nerve, or my ammunition was defective,” he told The New York Times. “But I did nothing like my best.”

And the idea of the sport, which has been widely credited to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, was to highlight the best, most skilled soldiers. Members of the military dominated the medals in those early years; Russia, Lithuania and Hungary stand among the modern powers. No North American has won gold in either the men’s event or in the women’s, which was only introduced in 2000.

At the Olympics, the event can feel like a chaotic blend of sports and athletes all thrown into the same competitive pot: A gruelling fencing tournament followed by a 200-metre freestyle swim, followed by a show-jumping competition and a three-kilometre cross-country run featuring stops for a shooting competition.

The modern pistols fire laser beams, rather than bullets. The real twist, though, is with the horse: The animal and the rider enter the competition as complete strangers. The athletes do not supply their own horses.                                                                                   Tim Fraser for National Post 

The modern pistols fire laser beams, rather than bullets. The real twist, though, is with the horse: The animal and the rider enter the competition as complete strangers. The athletes do not supply their own horses.
                                                                                  Tim Fraser for National Post 

The modern pistols fire laser beams, rather than bullets. The real twist, though, is with the horse: The animal and the rider enter the competition as complete strangers. The athletes do not supply their own horses.

“Your goal is to ride effectively,” Vakalis told the Times more recently, at the 2012 London Games. “And just like in speed dating — I’ve never gone on a speed date, but what I imagine you need to do is the same thing you need to do in your 20-minute warm-up: to really quickly figure out what the horse’s personality is.”

The five-event test of skills has not captured the broader imagination. In 2013, the International Olympic Committee considered removing the sport from the roster. Instead, the committee stunned observers by voting to eliminate wrestling.

Pentathlon is safe, but the guarantee is only through the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

“There’s no buzz to it,” Remo Cigagna said. “It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It really is. It’s unbelievably fascinating to watch. It’s a one-day event now. The sad part is they could do a lot better if they had more money in the bank.”

***

Joshua Riker-Fox, a 31-year-old from Calgary, made his Olympic debut in 2008 in Beijing, one year after winning bronze in the pentathlon at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.

At the season-opening world cup event in February, held in Sarasota, Fla., one of the best male pentathletes in Canada stayed in a hostel. He did book himself into the host hotel for the required minimum before shifting to the more affordable room down the road.

“Dirty,” he said, “but I had my own room.”

The flights and the lodging and the food were at his own expense, he said.

Neither Riker-Fox nor Vakalis are what are known as carded athletes, meaning they have not qualified for funding from Sport Canada, a branch within the Department of Canadian Heritage. That funding would be another $18,000 a year, no small sum for a struggling athlete.

Melanie McCann, a 25-year-old from Mount Carmel, Ont., who finished 11th in London, is the only Canadian pentathlete on the funding list.

Four racquetball players are on the list, earning a combined $72,000 in funding. That sport is not on the Olympic roster. Baseball, another non-Olympic sport, has 14 players on the list, for a total of $50,400 in funding.

William Brady of USA competes against Joshua Riker Fox of Canada during the Men's semi-final fencing event during the 2009 Modern Pentathlon World Championships at Crystal Palace National Stadium on August 13, 2009 in London, England.                                                                                        Jamie McDonald/Getty Image

William Brady of USA competes against Joshua Riker Fox of Canada during the Men's semi-final fencing event during the 2009 Modern Pentathlon World Championships at Crystal Palace National Stadium on August 13, 2009 in London, England.
                                                                                       
Jamie McDonald/Getty Image

Over the last year, Sport Canada has given out $26.28-million in funding to 2,458 carded athletes. The total for pentathlon: $20,611.52 for one athlete — the $18,000 plus another $2,611.52 in “tuition support.”

“The perception of being a non-carded athlete, despite everything I’ve done, is a dark one,” Riker-Fox said. “Because when you go in and talk to a sponsor, one of the first questions that they ask is, ‘Oh, well, are you carded?’”

The assumption, he said, is that someone who has been to the Olympics and has won on the international stage would receive carding. It forces him into a difficult explanation.

“It can diminish the perceived value that they see in me because I’m supposedly not held at the same standard as other athletes — or appreciated or respected at the same level,” he said. “Or, they’ve got to listen to me give a 60-second explanation as to why it’s this way, and sponsors don’t like that. Sponsors want an executive summary.”

Own the Podium, the not-for-profit organization that helps determine where resources are directed in Canadian amateur sport, has sent money to 30 summer sports through the last three Olympic cycles. That amounts to more than $207-million. Not a single dollar went to pentathlon.

A spokesperson from the Canadian Olympic Committee said that, heading to an Olympic Games, the COC would cover “some” of the costs associated with the actual participation in those games, such as transportation, insurance, and COC-branded clothing.

Following multiple requests over several weeks to speak with a COC executive, though, a second spokesperson responded: “COC will not comment on the national funding of Modern Pentathlon.”

“It can be pretty difficult,” Pentathlon Canada president Shaun LaGrange said. “We’re competing against some regions and some countries that are pretty well-financed, and we don’t enjoy that same sort of revenue.”

Rob Stull, managing director at USA Pentathlon, suggested his national governing body generated “ten times” the revenue of its Canadian counterpart last year. There are a few thousand active pentathletes in the U.S., he said, and just like their Canadian colleagues, they also live without much government funding.

“We go out and raise the money ourselves,” Stull said. “We do things. It’s not just walking around with your hand out saying, ‘Give us money.’”

Stull, who said that while the organization reimburses him for travel and related business expenses, is a volunteer. He said the organization is aiming to build participation down at the grassroots level, with efforts such as a summer camp in Texas.

Elite pentathletes in the U.S. also benefit from training alongside other athletes at the multi-sport high-performance centre in Colorado Springs, Colo. Help from the U.S. Olympic Committee is based on results, he said: “If you’re not in medal position, forget it.”

That has become the trend in Canada, as well, especially after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Proponents argue the system rewards those who perform, and direct scarce resources to those most likely to win on an international stage.

A private sector group backed by wealthy, sports-minded donors has helped push some of the country’s best athletes onto the podium. The group, known as B2ten, helps fill gaps in existing funding to give athletes a clearer view of the podium, whether it be through more access to coaching, better treatment — medical or psychological — or equipment.

The group is run by volunteers based in Montreal, and said it had raised $20-million from 15 donors heading into the Sochi Olympics. Four years earlier, 17 athletes received some form of help from B2ten, and combined, they delivered 12 medals in Vancouver.

It is run like a business, and in only a few years, it has become an indispensable resource for a number of Canada’s elite amateur athletes. Six-time Olympian Clara Hughes called it “an absolutely crucial thing.”

Cigagna said there are fewer than 300 participants in pentathlon across Canada.                                                                                        Tim Fraser for National Post

Cigagna said there are fewer than 300 participants in pentathlon across Canada.
                                                                                       Tim Fraser for National Post

Bruce Kidd, a former Canadian Olympic distance runner and long-time Olympic policy-watcher now serving as principal of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, said Canadian athletes deserve at least a “minimum of opportunity” to train and develop in their sport.

“I think we’ve got an obligation to support the broadest possible program,” Kidd said. “I see sports very much like culture and languages: We don’t want a monoculture. We believe in diversity.”

For those on the outside, he said, it can be the start of a difficult circle. Elite athletes need funds to help them reach the podium, but are expected to reach the podium in order to get the funding.

Part of the problem in generating interest in pentathlon — in the private sector as well as the public sector — is the size. Cigagna said there are fewer than 300 participants across Canada.

Canada Soccer claims to have close to 850,000 registered players. Hockey Canada is not far behind, with more than 634,000 players registered across all age groups according to the governing body’s 2014 annual report.

“I don’t want people to think that modern pentathlon deserves a massive influx and a free ride,” Vakalis said. “What I think it does deserve is just what any sport deserves: To make the playing field more fair and accessible to the people who are talented and hard workers. And as the funding drops to the level it has, you start excluding people.”

Back in his offices, Cigagna leaned back in his chair when asked for his dream scenario. With $500,000, he said, he could set Pentathlon Canada onto a sustainable course to help push its athletes closer to the podium.

“Corporate donors who can understand that these athletes are the best that we have,” he said. “And if we could match the best companies with the best athletes, maybe there’s something in common in there. Because they both have the same philosophy. Listen, if I were to be smoking pot, that’s what I would wish.

“Because right now, I’ve got to learn how to survive from the breadcrumbs that people swipe off the table. And I have to make a meal out of it.”

Source: http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/modern...