For a country that has never sent participants to the Big O in horse riding (show-jumping) and fencing, that sent a swimmer who finished last in his event at London lapped mercilessly by all others, and has just found a niche in shooting — the most passive of modern pentathlon’s constituent sports — Shirgavkar’s zeal to push for a programme and enlist participants can only be described as sports administration’s equivalent of bold bombast.
But the secretary general of the recently-formed Modern Pentathlon Federation of India, walks in the stubborn footsteps of Olympic’s grand old man — Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who pestered and petitioned his reluctant peers to include the five-discipline modern pentatholon into the quadrennial’s programme, and got his way much to his eventual glee.
Still, undertaking this project in India — global sport’s biggest slumbering giant, which barely stirred from its sleep this year in London with 6 medals - isn’t going to be a stroll in any sort of park. Picking a clutch of medals (four team podiums) at the recent UIPM XIV Baithle World Championships (run-swim-run) in Dubai, Shirgavkar believes India is ready to make the transition to the Modern Pentathlon, a hugely fascinating Olympic sport with inversely proportional popularity ratings in London. Coubertin intended for warring cavalries to find some semblance of bonhomie by throwing them into sports competitions, but 2012 India, with its academics inclined pre-teens and sedentary adults just seems like a steep Himalayan climb for pentathlon.
Imagine finding one bloke or girl who’s enthusiastic about running, swimming, shooting and fencing, before you even think of putting the same bloke or girl astride a horse for show-jumping.
“The medals were a big boost. But we are hopeful to put the programmes in place in six months, and let’s see if we can get a few ready for the Youth Olympics and 2014 Asian Games in Incheon,” Shirgavkar said. This unlikely dream took root in Pune’s Balewadi Complex — where state camps are conducted round the year for myriad disciplines including fencing from where Shirgavkar, a national-level fencer, was inspired.
While co-ordinating for the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008, he met the big suits of IOC, and ended with a blueprint guided by the Asian Pentathlon Federation. Earlier in Dubai, India’s biathles were a star-struck lot as London gold medallist David Svoboda, a left-handed hunk, chatted with them about his own career in pentathlon which started at a relatively-late age of 16. “He was a brilliant swimmer then, after which he turned his attention to pentathlon,” Shirgavkar said. Easy though for David, and his younger brother from Prague whom he cheered on in Dubai, to take to the sport considering Czechs are consummate practitioners of shooting, fencing and able riders too, to round off the swim-run duet which is easy to pick up.
Efforts to enlist pentathletes then involve casting the net wide. The plan is to train talented biathles in the 14-17 age-group in the remaining three disciplines - a touch of fencing, a dash of 10m pistol shooting and the absolute challenge of horse-riding. Vinay Marathe, a swimming coach at Balewadi, has started talks with London bronze medallist Gagan Narang’s shooting academy to borrow their facility to hone their marksmanship, though the laser pistol shooting (minus ammunition) introduced in London makes it an altogether novel sport, even for Narang’s academy.
Then there is the originally intended target group - the army, which will be approached in coming days, so that their horsemen, almost always trained in firing ranges, have only the fencing bit to patch together. Angad Sahlot, a 18-year-old from the Olympic Riding Club in Delhi is another readily available raw material, and Shirgavkar insists that it will be a matter of trying and giving it a long run. “It is not easy for any country,” said Vinay Marathe, “But we will start training coaches this January and we will pick enthusiastic athletes from all the disciplines.” Funding will be an almighty headache, though being recognised by the IOA will kickstart a few loosening of purse-strings.
There’s interest from pockets in Punjab, Delhi and Maharashtra, but with horses and electronic targets and laser guns and fencing swords and suits involved, it promises to be one of the most expensive hobbies to take up. Manasvi Iyer, a 14-year-old school girl from Nasik returned with a bronze from Dubai and is excited about learning this and that and that of this complex sport. “I started in aquathlon — swim 400m, run 3 km, but now I’m thrilled that I’ll learn fencing, shooting and horse riding. It won’t be difficult once you try,” she said.
Modern pentathlon has forever struggled for relevance or context even at the Olympics. The fancy, futuristic laser pistols might turn out to be fascinating toys in the hands of aspiring youngsters, but should it take off in India, it will be the biggest outdoor cross-training exercise. Watching scholarly shooters run and fence and swim, will also bring in an element of fun.