Giving fencing a forward thrust

Victories could whet American appetite for an ancient sport


Athens Olympics

August 22, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

For the uninitiated, the high-tech, head-to-toe costumes that covered Olympic fencing contestants Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson last week made it as difficult to read their faces as it was their every move.

But when Zagunis, a 19-year-old college freshman from Oregon, took the gold medal for women's saber fencing Tuesday, there was no mistaking her reaction. She took off her mask, smiled and jumped into the air and into the arms of her coach, not once but several times. After all, hers was the first medal ever for an American woman in the 80 years Olympic fencing has been open to them, and the first for a U.S. fencer in 20 years. It was a double: Jacobson, a Yale junior from Georgia, took the bronze.

The success of the American women fueled hope that the victory will be a boon for fencing.

But will fencing ever be sexy enough for prime time?

Fencing is one of the original nine Olympic sports, the sport of knights and saints and movie stars.

In the Middle Ages, when every man fenced and the women at least understood it, it might have been a spectator sport. But today it is a participant sport and so unexciting to the MTV generation that rumors of its demise regularly accompany meetings of the International Olympic Committee.

Just when U.S. women are winning one of the Games' oldest sports, the committee is busy adding contests like snowboarding and beach volleyball. Even serious athletes such as female gymnasts are compelled to decorate themselves in full makeup and glitter.

Female contestants in beach volleyball are required to wear a bikini and "that gets my Irish up," says James Murray, coach of the No. 2-ranked women's varsity fencing team at Johns Hopkins University and a volleyball player himself. That tells him that beach volleyball is a "thinly disguised sport better known as backyard recreation" and shouldn't be an Olympic sport.

Fencing, on the other hand, is bona fide battle: You try to get the better of your opponent without getting hit yourself. Compared with other one-on-one women's combat sports like wrestling or judo, it's more stylized. You use a weapon, and you dress in a protective uniform and your head is covered in a kind of cage. Strikes happen so fast and movements can be so slight that it helps to replay a tournament in slow motion to see what happened.

Oldest sport for women

Fencing has its origins in the medieval duel.

"Most of history has been decided by swords," says Murray. "Gunpowder is a recent invention. As long as there have been armies, people had to train with a blunted weapon. So play-fighting with a sword has had a real application for thousands of years."

Fencing is also the oldest intercollegiate sport for women in the United States.

Unlike lacrosse, where the rules and equipment are different for men and women, fencing is the same for both sexes. Sometimes they train together.

Fencing is such a tradition for women that they have their own ancient patron saint: Joan of Arc, who battled the British for the honor of France. Every year the city of Orleans, France, hosts an international women's fencing tournament in her honor. "It's very moving," Murray says.

The U.S. Fencing Association, open to those who compete in tournaments, says 34 percent of its members are women.

And although fencing seems arcane to the uninitiated, there remains a fascination and lure, so much so that interest in the United States is way up among both men and women.

Sword is ever-present

The spike in recent years has two reasons: First, organizers began putting seed money into tournaments for younger kids about a decade ago, which encouraged more young people to compete. Second, the sword fight remains a fixture in popular culture.

Everywhere you look, the sword is on display. It's been 66 years since Errol Flynn fended off Basil Rathbone in the movie Robin Hood. But with all the high-tech devices featured in the Star Wars films, the battle between good and evil always seems to come down to a sword fight (albeit with light sabers). Fencing scenes show up routinely in other recent movies, like Lord of the Rings, King Arthur and the Disney remake of Three Musketeers.

(One fencing-friendly movie, The Princess Bride, is a cult favorite among Murray's fencers; some women on the Hopkins team can recite the sword-fighting scenes word-for-word.)

Fencing has always been popular in Europe, where a single city might support 10 clubs, but last week's win may be an indication that Americans are finally catching up.

Americans will always be good at something involving a stopwatch -- track and field, swimming -- because we can out-train other countries, Murray says. "The more subjective, intuitive sports, such as gymnastics, fencing, synchronized swimming," he says, "might take us a little while."

Cindy Bent-Findlay of the U.S. Fencing Association says that the more that Americans win and the more that fencing becomes important to Americans, the more it will be televised. This year featured five hours of televised fencing, more TV than ever, on cable's Bravo. Still, most of the contests at the Olympics were viewed only by ticket-holders.

For now, Murray is preparing to greet six new nationally ranked members of his 20-woman varsity squad in a few weeks. But he's also expecting a drove of newcomers.

Usually about 40 women sign up to learn fencing each fall, he says, but this year, as a result of the women's Olympic saber victory, he is sure there will be more like 60.

"This is a real windfall," he says.

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