In a continuing series, Steve Smythe looks at the history of events at the Olympics and this time it is the turn of the women’s pentathlon and heptathlon

While the men’s decathlon debuted in the Olympics in 1904, the women had to wait 60 years to get their first combined events competition and it was a half decathlon in the form of a pentathlon.

Britain have done well in the event and we look at the history of an event that is shaping up as one of Britain’s best medal hopes for Rio with a double-pronged attack from defending champion Ennis-Hill and last year’s world number one Johnson-Thompson.

Pentathlon – 1964 to 1980

Iryna Press won the first ever pentathlon in Tokyo 1964 with a world record 5246 points. She won easily by 211 points but her dominance was purely down to a 17.16m shot which took 386 points out of the runner-up Mary Rand. That throw was significantly further than Press achieved in finishing sixth in the shot final. Long jump champion Rand, who threw just 11.05m, was significantly better in the last three events and moved into second.

In Mexico in 1968, Germany’s Ingrid Becker was also poor in the shot, but made up for it in the other four events, culminating in a 23.5 200m. She had been just eighth in 1964.

German athletes took three of the first four places in 1972 but Great Britain came out on top while in 1976 the event was dominated by East Germany, who clean-sweeped the medals.

The final pentathlon in 1980, now with an 800m instead of a 200m, was dominated by the Soviet Union who also won all the medals with all their trio breaking the world record. Nadezhda Tkachenko had been ninth in 1972 and fifth in 1976, but greatly improved thereafter. She initially won the 1978 European Championships but lost the title to a failed drugs test but was back in time after a 18 month suspension for Moscow. Her improvement was significant between the Olympics – from 14.90m to 16.84m in the shot and from 6.08m to 6.73m in the long jump and she finished with a 2:05.82 800m. Bronze medallist Olga Kuragina finished with a 2:03.6!

Heptathlon – 1984 to 2012

The inaugural heptathlon in 1984 was badly affected by the East European boycott and Britain’s Judy Simpson led the first day though the big favourite was Jackie Joyner. The American who went on to jump 6.77m in the long jump final, struggled in the multi event starting with two no jumps and her final jump was a mere 6.11m from way behind the board. A 44.52m javelin throw put her ahead though but she lost out to Glynis Nunn in the 800m and lost by five points which was effectively 0.33 of a second in the 800m or 3cm in the long jump.

The American’s name changed in 1988 as she was now Joyner-Kersee and she was a different athlete too. Her long jump was now an astonishing 7.27m but she also improved from 13.63 to 12.69 in the hurdles, 1.80m to 1.86m in the high jump, from 14.29m to 15.80m in the shot, from 24.05 to 22.56 in the 200m and from 2:13.03 to 2:06.51 in the 800m. The result was a still-standing world record 7291 points.

She defended easily in Barcelona in 1992 but was only better in the high jump where she achieved 1.91m. Her 7044 score was better than anyone else has ever achieved. Carolina Kluft, who has come closest to the American’s score, achieved the biggest ever victory in Athens in 2004 as she won by over 500 points.

British successes

Mary Peters was fourth in 1964 but in better form for Munich in 1972. She had an inspired first day with a 13.29 100m hurdles, a 16.29m shot and a 1.82m PB in the high jump. At this stage she was 97 points up on world record holder Burglinde Pollak and 301 points ahead of the other favourite Heide Rosendahl, who had won the long jump gold two days earlier.

In the pentathlon the latter then jumped a huge 6.83m – just a centimetre down on the world record – to reduce the deficit. The West German then smashed her 200m PB with a world class 22.96. Though 10 metres back, the Briton also PB’d with 24.08 and it was enough to hold on to victory by just 10 points as she set a world record 4801 points.

Denise Lewis became the first British heptathlon winner in 2000. She had edged a bronze medal in 1996 and then won world silvers in 1997 and 1999. The Birchfield Harrier had a poor high jump and was lying just eighth after two events but came back strongly with a 15.55m shot to go second and she was third after the end of the first day after a solid but unspectacular 24.34 200m. World champion Eunice Barber, who had thrown a paltry 11.27m in the shot, withdrew after the long jump. There, the Briton jumped well with a 6.48m and then took the lead with a 50.19m javelin throw. Suffering with a strapped ankle, Lewis did enough in the 800m to ensure gold with a 2:16.83 run and she won by 53 points.

Jessica Ennis agonisingly missed 2008 due to injury but Briton still won a medal through Kelly Sotherton. Ennis returned in 2009 to win the world title and though only second in 2011, she was a big favourite for London and was under considerable pressure with the home support. She thrived on the pressure though and won easily with a British record 6955 points. She wasn’t at her very best in 2015 but still regained the world title but might need to get back to her London 2012 form to repel the challenge of Johnson-Thompson and Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who have achieved the best marks of the last two years.

Most memorable Olympic pentathlon/heptathlon – Montreal 1976

It wasn’t the best quality Championship but the Montreal pentathlon was the closest major multi event in history with the biggest changes in the final event. After four of the events, just 95 points covered the top eight:
Nadezhda Tkachenko 3788
Lyudmila Popovskaya 3772
Burglinde Pollak 3768
Diane Jones 3764
Christine Laser 3757
Margit Papp 3726
Siegrun Siegl 3718
Jane Frederick 3693

Siegrun Siegl, the world long jump record-holder at 6.99m, managed just 6.49m in her speciality and it only moved her up to seventh place with just the 200m to go. In that though she excelled and ran a time of 23.09. That gave her a total of 4745 while Christine Laser, who had been fifth, ran 23.48 and she too achieved a total of 4745 and the athletes who had started seventh and fifth had moved past everyone to the top.

The gold was decided by head-to-heads and Siegl held advantage over her East German compatriot by 3-2. World record-holder Burglinde Pollak, who had been close to gold in Munich but ended up third, was even closer in Canada. Had she run six hundredths of a second faster, she would have won gold but her 23.64 left her just five points short of her team-mates.

Nadezhda Tkachenko, who had started the event in first found a 24.61 dropped her to fifth. She was to fare better in Moscow in 1980.

Final scores:
1 Siegl 4745
2 Laser 4745
3 Pollak 4740
4 Popovskaya 4700
5 Tkachenko 4669
6 Jones 4582
7 Frederick 4566
8 Papp 4535

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Women’s combined events feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the October 1, 2015, edition of AW magazine