Exclusive: Laser shooting problems have turned modern pentathlon into a lottery, claims Weale

Friday, 29 July 2011
By Mike Rowbottom

Sam Weale shootingJuly 29 - British pentathlete Sam Weale claims persistent technical problems with the laser shooting system controversially introduced to top-level competition this year have turned his sport into a "lottery" which is putting the Olympic ambitions of athletes at risk.

"It can't go on, it is embarrassing," said Weale, who was one of four athletes to lodge a protest over malfunctioning targets after the first men's semi-final at the European Championships in Medway yesterday.

"This is athletes' careers and lives at stake, with Olympic futures in jeopardy," he exclusively told insidethegames.

"Change has to happen.

"How an Olympic sport can continue ignoring the problems with a system and continue blindingly is beyond me.

"Yesterday's semi-final A saw top athletes - Justin Kinderis, Thomas Daniel and myself standing at the range twice for 70 seconds before the target timed out.

"These are athletes with proven ability in the combined event who don't take 20 plus shots to hit five targets down.

"Official appeals were made, but with no proof of shot placement and only a readout stating missed shots, there is nothing to prove any system failure and nothing which can be done."

"It's turned the event into a lottery.

"It was a lottery enough as a sport because of the equestrian section, where you get the horse you are given.

"But this is different.

"To think it was the easiest chance of qualifying for the London 2012 Games is quite heart-rending.

"A place in the top eight earns an Olympic spot and that is what I was aiming for.

"It is hard to accept when that chance is taken away from you through something you can't control.

"But I am not making my protest just for myself.

"This is about every modern pentathlete.

"Even if it doesn't happen to you in one competition, it might do in the next.

"The technology isn't reliable, there should have been a definite testing procedure over a two year period and not use the highest level of competition in the sport as a test.

"What happens now is they need a system to prove where the shots are going.

"This still might not be reliable but at least there will be some evidence of shot placement.

"The main issue with the system is there is no shot feedback.

"It doesn't tell you where the shots are going, just whether the sensor has received the signal.

"The problem comes when the system is used in direct sunlight for some reason causing irregular reception of the laser beam.

"So no matter if you are hitting the black it comes up on the system as a missed shot.

"There is no proof of this however and the UIPM [the sport's world governing body] can hide behind this with the excuse the athletes are just missing.

"It has happened a lot in training that the system fails in direct sunlight.

"It also failed on six of the targets at the test event at the youth Olympics but this was ignored.

"There were six official protests at the Olympic test event at the World Cup final which were all ignored.

"There were four official protests at the European championships which were ignored."

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The introduction of laser technology last year was surrounded by uncertainty and controversy as delegates at the annual UIPM meeting believed they had voted for a further testing period before laser shooting could be brought into the Olympic programme, only to be told by senior UIPM officials that provision had been made to accelerate its inclusion, and that the Youth Olympics in Singapore had effectively served as an Olympic trial for the technology.

The UIPM position was that laser shooting would help secure the sport's continuing inclusion in the Olympics, and would make it safer for young people to take up the sport.

"There is a reason winter biathlon still uses the knock down target system with live ammunition because it is proven and pretty much fool proof," Weale added.

"The only reason modern pentathlon can get away with this is because it is such a small sport with little sponsorship and media negativity to worry about.

"Taking a risk two years before the Olympic Games is obviously a risk the UIPM is willing to take to try and save the Olympic future of the sport.

"Let's not forget the decision to introduce laser guns was turned down at congress but was overruled."

Apart from issues with sunlight, there have been other technical problems with the new system, including connections between the gun and the target.

Weale believes his sport's officials have been trying to ignore the problem.

"There were at least six protests I knew of at the Olympic test event in Greenwich Park, but they were brushed under the carpet," Weale said.

"If it doesn't happen to one of the top 10 athletes it seems like it isn't an issue."

Despite a relatively disappointing fencing result, Weale had arrived at the combined section of his semi-final at Medway in 17th place, with the top 18 qualifying to the final.

Competitors sprint to the first of three shoots, run 1000 metres before the second and third, and finish with another 1000m run.

On each shoot, competitors have a maximum of 70 seconds to hit the target five times, with each hit switching off one of five green lights.

"With my run and shoot to come, I felt I was comfortably going to qualify," he said.

"After my first shoot on the range I was up to 15th or 16th.

"But then the problems started.

"You get to the target, you load your gun and its 'miss', 'miss', 'miss', 'miss', 'miss'... and obviously you are not that bad.

"But then you are timed out, and so you go on running to the next shoot.

"And the same thing happens again."

While the British team protested on his behalf, protests also went in for Lithuania's Kinderis and Austria's Daniel.

All came to nothing.

"It's the second time this has happened to Thomas," Weale said.

"He had the same problem in the Olympic test event at Greenwich.

"Justin is a guy who has won World Cup medals this year and is one of the best in the world.

"Thomas is probably the best combined event athlete there is.

"For athletes like this to shoot again and again and miss until they are timed out - it doesn't happen."

Weale was fully supported in his protest by Britain's team management.

"I am not saying that laser shooting is completely a bad idea," he said.

"When it comes health and safety issues, I can also see why LOGOG were keen on the idea of lasers as there are less safety implications.

"However, at the end of the day it's not shooting anymore, and could be argued to not be worthy to be considered as shooting."

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