Lilliehöök delights home crowd with inaugural modern pentathlon gold

The brainchild of Baron de Coubertin, the modern pentathlon made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1912.

It comprised five disciplines: athletics, fencing, riding, swimming and shooting. The Official Report described the new event as follows: “The five events ought to be such as would test the endurance, resolution, presence of mind, intrepidity, agility and strength of those taking part in the competition, while, in drawing up the detailed programme, it was necessary to have all the events of equivalent value, in order to make the modern pentathlon a competition of really all-round importance.”

Thirty-two athletes took part in the inaugural modern pentathlon on 7-12 July, and it would prove a sapping test of their all-round sporting and physical ability. Gösta Lilliehöök, a local from Stockholm who had recently turned 28, was among the protagonists and would become the new event’s first winner. First up was the shooting event on 7 July, which involved five shots fired at a target that was visible for three seconds per shot. Lilliehöök came third in an event dominated by Swedes, who took eight of the first 10 places.

The next day the competitors took to the pool for a 300m freestyle swim. Lilliehöök came fourth out of five in the first heat and 10th overall, but still finished the day joint-third in the overall standings.

The third event was the fencing, which took up almost two entire days. Lilliehöök’s performance is mentioned briefly in the Official Report, which says: “Lieutenants Lilliehöök and [Gustaf] Lewenhaupt also made a good show against their opponents, and displayed great skill.” He finished fifth, and moved up to second overall.

Riding was the penultimate event, and this was to be a cross-country race over 5,000 metres. There were 17 different obstacles to negotiate, including fences and ditches. The Swedes dominated again, occupying the first four places, with Lilliehöök coming fourth in 9:45.5. The winner Åke Grönhagen came home in 9:04.2, more than half an hour ahead of his nearest rival, while the the third-placed Oskar Wilkman finished in 10:34.2. Lilliehöök had completed the course without any points deductions and, with one race to go, remained second overall behind countryman Georg de Laval.

The final event was a 4,000m cross-country run beginning and ending in the Olympic Stadium, with athletes starting at one-minute intervals and racing against the clock. Lilliehöök finished fifth in 20:32.9, which was enough to win him gold as De Laval could only finish 12th. Despite not having won a single event (second-placed Gösta Åsbrink won two), Lilliehöök’s consistency saw him triumph overall.

The general consensus was that the first ever Olympic modern pentathlon had been a great success. As for Lilliehöök, despite his triumphant display in his native city, he was not seen again at an Olympic Games. He died in 1974 at the age of 90, but little is known about his subsequent sporting career.