The modern pentathlon was tailor-made for Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr. Conceived by Baron de Coubertin, the father of the Modern Olympic Games, it tested “the fitness of a perfect man at arms” through a series of five (pen) competitions (-athlon): shooting, swimming, riding, fencing and cross-country running. De Coubertin considered these the five skills a soldier needed to survive behind enemy lines, and as such the modern pentathlon was only open to officers when it was introduced in 1912 at the Games of the V Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden. (Today, anyone can participate in the modern pentathlon.)
Over a century ago, there were no Olympic trials; athletes were merely invited and each trained on his own schedule. It wasn’t until May 12, 1912, that Lieutenant Patton received word the Army chose him to represent the United States in the modern pentathlon. The choice was hardly surprising, though, because the twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant graduated West Point in 1909 as an expert rifleman, received his coveted Army “A” for breaking a school record in track and field, and competed skillfully with the broadsword.
George jumped at the chance to compete in the Olympics, not only because it was the perfect opportunity to enhance his reputation and increase his visibility, but even more so because it offered him a tangible link to the ancient heroic warriors he admired since he was a little boy. The pentathlon was one of the original disciplines at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece, held every four years from 776 BCE, when the official count began, to 393 CE, when Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them to limit the spread of paganism (the games were part of a religious festival held in honor of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods who lived on Mount Olympus). In ancient Greece, the pentathlon comprised wrestling, the long jump, the discus and javelin throw, and the stadion race.
With only a month to go before his departure, George found himself at a marked disadvantage despite being “in excellent physical condition.” In order to catch up with the months of preparation most of his competitors enjoyed, he immediately began training like a maniac, to the detriment of his body and family. Subsisting on a diet of raw steak and salad while working out from morning till evening, his wife Beatrice remembered him being “unfit for human companionship.” George Patton was not a born athlete, but his boundless energy and determination more than made up for what he lacked in skill.
The Pattons — Beatrice, George, his parents, and his sister — boarded the S.S. Finland on June 14, 1912, together with the rest of the US Olympic team. Every day for the next two weeks as they sailed towards Stockholm, George joined the cross-country team at 6 AM for a two-mile run across the deck, followed by shooting practice “with the revolver team from ten to twelve; fencing with the fencing team from three to five” and ending the day with swimming practice, in a canvas water tank with a rope tied around his waist. He didn’t even let up during a short layover in Belgium, preferring to go for a run around the countryside while Beatrice and her in-laws explored Antwerp and Brussels. When they finally arrived in Stockholm on June 29, the entire family moved into the Grand Hotel at their own expense, unlike the other athletes who remained on board the S.S. Finland for the duration of the games.
The 1912 Olympics were the most international games there had been so far, exactly what de Coubertin envisioned when he revived them in 1896. The close to twenty-five hundred Olympians from twenty-eight countries who converged on the Swedish capital were fêted around town every night. Beatrice and George enjoyed tea at the royal palace, attended a dinner with Crown Prince Gustav VI, and discovered Stockholm amid midsummer, when the sun set around 10:00 PM and rose barely six hours later. It didn’t take long for George and his thirty-two competitors to feel “more like good friends and comrades than rivals in a severe competition.”
However, “this spirit of friendship in no manner detracted from the zeal with which all strove for success” when the five-day event got underway on July 7. To everyone’s surprise, George missed three of the twenty shots he fired from his .38 Colt at a target which stood twenty-five feet away, leaving him a dismal twenty-first in the shooting competition. Theories abound to this day how an outstanding marksman like George Patton could have missed three times, especially because he achieved a perfect and record setting score the day before during a practice run. Some, including Lieutenant Patton himself, believed those three bullets passed seamlessly through the hole created by his first bullseye, but without advanced technology it was impossible to prove this. Beatrice took the blame upon herself for her husband’s disappointing performance. The only way he could have missed the target entirely was because he was too tired, and she was the one who kept him out partying all night.
Twenty-nine competitors remained to take part in the 300 meter free-style swimming on July 8. George ended up seventh with a time just over 5.55, but the effort left him so exhausted he had to be dragged from the pool by a boat hook.
The next two days were spent at the Royal Swedish Tennis Club for the fencing competition, where each of the remaining twenty-seven competitors faced off against each other with the dueling sword (épée). George, who distinguished himself by his “calm skill and rapidity,” finished fourth with twenty points. He was one of only three competitors who defeated de Mas Latrie, an expert swordsman from France who would be killed just two years later at the start of World War I.
Despite riding a strange horse the next day — his own mount Fencing Girl “developed a slight lameness” on the way over from America — George completed a perfect course in the five kilometer cross-country steeplechase, taking sixth place based on his time of 10.42. The mystery course was difficult and filled with seventeen obstacles, a true test for both rider and mount, and more than half of the riders fell along the way.
July 12 was an unusually hot and humid day for Stockholm. By now, only twenty-two competitors remained standing for the fifth leg of the competition, the four kilometer cross-country run. Beatrice warned George to pace himself, but he took off “like a 100 yards sprinter” and quickly disappeared out of sight. When he re-entered the Olympic Stadium a little under twenty minutes later, his overzealousness finally caught up with him. It was a “fearful experience” for Beatrice to watch George throw himself forward across the finish line and faint dead away in the grass (so did two other competitors, and a third one died). He regained consciousness either a few minutes (according to the newspapers) or a few hours (according to George) later, overhearing his worried father ask whether “the boy” would live.
George awoke to the news that he finished third in the race and fifth in the overall competition, behind four Swedes who were familiar with the geography and climate of Stockholm. While he was disappointed and embarrassed to lose out on a medal because of pistol shooting, he was not a sore loser. When Beatrice once found George on his knees in the bedroom before a polo game, she asked him whether he was praying to win. He replied with a lesson he learned from his father upon failing his plebe year at West Point, “No, just that I would do my best.”
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind George had done more than his best at the Olympics, and his performance brought him front-page coverage at home, “Lieutenant Patton’s success in securing fifth in the modern pentathlon against 41 other officers, the best of the European Armies, makes the American cavalry lieutenant one of the popular personages of Stockholm.” He embellished some of his individual results in his official report, but his performance was impressive enough that he was offered a spot in the 1916 Olympics in Berlin.
The 1916 Olympics were ultimately cancelled because of World War I, providing Lieutenant Patton with an opportunity to test his mettle in actual battle. Thirty-three years later, however, in November 1945, (by then) General Patton returned to Stockholm for a reunion with his old comrades. He ended up second when they recreated the pistol-shooting competition.
All information regarding points, competitors… are based upon the official report of the Olympic Committee. In his official report for his superiors, George exaggerated certain results of the individual competitions:
George’s ranking: 21 – 6 – 3 – 3 – 3
Official ranking: 21 – 7 – 4 – 6 – 3
- Bergvall, E., Adams-Ray, E., Committee, S. O., & kommitté, S. O. (1913). The Fifth Olympiad: The Official Report of the Olympic Games of Stockholm, 1912. Swedish Olympic Committee.
- Box 5 Folder 15, George S. Patton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
- Box 5 Folder 16, George S. Patton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
- Hatch, Alden. George Patton: General in Spurs. Messner, 1950.
- Totten, Ruth Ellen Patton. Button Box: a Daughter’s Loving Memoir of Mrs. George s. Patton. Univ Of Missouri Press, 2011.
- “Good for American Soldier.” The Boston Globe, 13 July 1912, pp. 5.
- Wilson, Harold E. “A Legend In His Own Mind: The Olympic Experience of General George S. Patton, Jr.” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, VI, 1997, pp. 99–114.
- George Smith Patton Senior and Junior fencing, photCL 282 (186), Patton Family Collection of Negatives and Photographs, 1885-1945, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
- USfencingresults.org – https://usfencingresults.org/history/olympic/?dir=1912