Mike Rowbottom
Mike Rowbottom(48)As Britain's modern pentathletes get into their stride in the World Cup series, the man who has masterminded the team's fortunes since 1998, Performance Director Jan Bartu, is coming to terms with the controversial introduction of lasers for the shooting element, although he believes it will cause a radical shift in the balance of the overall event.

Modern pentathlon has endured numerous changes since being introduced to the Olympics at the 1912 Stockholm Games, including reduction from a four or five day event into a one-day event in 1996.

But the gap between the 2008 Beijing Games and the forthcoming Olympics in London has seen not one but two further changes in this traditional sport. In 2009, the final shooting and running elements were combined, and last year the sport's world governing body, the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) decided, amidst considerable confusion, to replace air pistols with lasers in time for the London 2012 Games, with this year's World Cup series marking the innovation's international debut.

Bartu believes the practice which has evolved in competition over the last couple of years, where athletes who excel at the run/shoot discipline have relied on making up huge amounts of ground in the closing stages, will no longer work because the laser shooting takes significantly less time and it will be harder to gain ground on opponents during this stage.

"The top athletes will hit their five targets in, let's say, 12 15, 16 seconds," Bartu said as he supervised final preparations at the sport's University of Bath base for the second World Cup event in Italy. "It's almost 15, 20 seconds less than before. That's a 50 per cent reduction of time spent on the range.

"You actually get a competition much closer. And there won't be massive changes with athletes coming from way back up to the top in the run/shoot phase, as it happened with the combined event in the beginning, when you would see athletes coming through to the top of the field from 18 or 20th place.

"Top athletes can transfer their shooting skills into a much faster rhythm, so they are actually speeding up, and so the whole field will be 20 seconds shooting. Before it was 20 seconds up to a minute, but I don't think this is going to be the case now.

"Because you need to position yourself near the top of the field. You can't believe that an excellent combined event will get you through. You have got to be there with the top athletes, head to head. You need to be up there after three events if you want to win a medal. I have no hard core evidence to what I am saying, but that's my thinking."

And that effect, Bartu believes, will ripple back through the competition, with increasing emphasis now needing to be laid on the technical disciplines of fencing and equestrianism.

"It somehow slipped from the radar of many coaches, especially the equestrian phase," he said. "You would think 'OK, I get through this, and I'm great in the combined event, so I can knock 30, 40 seconds from the other people's times, I will move up no matter what. But now you can't expect to be clawing it back from way back."

Although Bartu was dismayed by the confused introduction of the laser shooting, he was relieved at the way in which British pentathletes coped with the change at the opening World Cup in Palm Springs at the end of February.

"We didn't actually practise with the laser," he said. "We didn't have any equipment before Palm Springs, like many others.

"So the athletes went out there almost shooting blind. What came back to me was a complete surprise in a positive way. They adapted to it so quickly. And obviously I feel much more optimistic now.

"But was I nervous? Absolutely. I didn't know what to expect. It could have gone either way. But it makes them stronger now, because if we have done this before proper training, what will we do when we actually get to practise with it?"

For a man who has managed the British team effort meticulously for 13 years, such hasty changes were challenging to say the least.

"It's a classic top-down decision," he said. "It's an ideal which has been politically justified. I don't want to go into the international governing body politics because it is unexplainable.

"We have been constantly reminded: 'trust us, trust us, this is the way forward for the sport. Here we come, 21st century, it will get us into the consciousness of all the IOC people and it has the potential to secure modern pentathlon in the Olympics beyond 2016.'

"But I changed my mind, I'm telling you. In the beginning I could not associate myself with it, it was understandable, because I have spent all my life in this sport, I come from a really classic upbringing, shooting with the full automatic rapid gun. Going to air pistol was difficult, and now going to this, it's like taking something away from you.

"But I have to be realistic. If this is going to work it really can make a massive difference and I can see now the point for actually doing it so fast. Because we said that this is it, we go with it, we embrace it, we have to make it work.

"And as a British pentathlete, and one of the strongest nations in the sport, running Olympic qualifiers this year, running Olympic Games next year, is an obligation.

"I can see now the bigger picture. Worldwide, if it works and we make it work in the Games, as we will, no doubt, who knows what the future holds? Maybe even for shooting disciplines?"

Combine shoot and run? OK. Oh, and shooting with lasers? Check.

With the best will in the world, modern pentathletes must be wondering what is coming up next. A combining of the equestrian and fencing elements perhaps, to create televisually rewarding combat scenes for the younger viewer?

Sam Weale, who has hopes of using his experience of the 2008 Beijing Games to reach the podium four years on, has clearly had his own imaginative thoughts on the topic, which he was happy to share as he sat in the busy café within the sports complex at the University of Bath, British Pentathlon's HQ.

"Perhaps we could be running around shooting at each other next, like laser quest," he suggested with a grin. "Where does it end?"

Like most of his peers, Weale, who is aiming for one of the two London 2012 spots for the men's team, is working hard to take the changes aboard, although he believes the latest innovation in the shooting has been unduly hasty.

"It's been introduced very quickly - too quickly," he says. "To be honest it's not too fair on the athletes having two changes in an Olympic period.

"You've got to accept it and get on with it. But it's just amateur in a way to introduce laser shooting at the first World Cup of the season – and the guns were given to people a day before competition. I mean that's just embarrassing. That was an Olympic qualifying competition. And it is a bit of a risk to introduce new technology into a sport which hasn't been tested.

"You'd think they can't make too many more changes, but you never know. They have to go with the times I guess.

It's a very traditional sport, so I suppose if this latest change does make it more accessible to people then, fantastic. But first of all they need to reduce the cost of the guns, because at the moment it's costing €500 (£440/$728) for the adaption of the guns and they will cost you €800-1,000 (£705/$1,165-£882/$1,456) in the first place. And the target will cost you €200 (£176/$291).

"Whereas you can go down to your local gun shop and pick up a gun for £100 ($165) and a target for 5p ($0.08) or something and a box of pellets for £2 ($3).

"So in total that's costing you a lot of money, and that's costing your federation down the road, and you have to go along with this. The poorer nations have probably been struggling with this. Is that making it more accessible to everyone? I don't know...

"They tried to use the environmental argument and say it's saving lead, but I'm not too sure on that one either. How many pentathletes are there in the world and how many tons of lead will this end up saving?"

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames