Except for the fencing competition, athletes do not directly compete against one another in the five events. Instead, a better absolute performance results in a higher points score; points for each event are combined to give the overall total scores. This is similar to the procedure for the decathlon in track and field athletics. However, an innovation was introduced to make the finale of the pentathlon more exciting. The last event is the cross-country run. Competitors are ranked according to their score from the first four disciplines and given different start times, with the leader going first, and other starts staggered by points differential such that the first person to cross the finish line will be the overall points leader and win the pentathlon.
The fencing discipline uses the épée. The competition is a round-robin, meaning each competitor will face all the other competitors once. Each match lasts up to one minute; the first fencer to score a hit wins instantly. If neither scores within one minute, both lose the match.
The swimming discipline is a 200 m freestyle race. Until the 2000 Olympics, the distance was 300 meters. Competitors are seeded in heats according to their fastest time over the distance.
The riding discipline involves show jumping over a 350–450 m course with 12 to 15 obstacles. Competitors are paired with horses in a draw 20 minutes before the start of the event.
The running discipline involves a 3 km cross-country race. Until the 2000 Olympics, the distance was 4000 metres.
The shooting discipline involves using a 4.5 mm air pistol in the standing position from 10 metres distance at a stationary target. Until the 2008 rules change, the format was that of the 10 metre air pistol competition: each competitor had 20 shots, with 40 seconds allowed for each shot.
Beginning with the Rancho Mirage World Cup (Feb 2011), the pistols have changed to a laser instead of an actual projectile. There is a slight delay between the trigger pull and the laser firing, simulating the time it would take for a pellet to clear the muzzle.
Read the case study of Pentathlon at the Olympic Games in London 2012