Why Canadian fencing sucks big time
Posted by E on August 12, 2008
While keeping score with the Olympic games in Beijing, I hardly batted an eye as the news flashed on the official Beijing scores site: one by one, each Canadian fencer fell, pretty much after their first or second bouts. It’s a bit of a deja vu, actually, a flashback to the last Olympics – in Atlanta and Athens – when Canada managed to actually qualify more fencers to go than even this year.
And then what happened? Well, you know. What always happens.
They go home after 1 or 2 bouts.
Sorry to break it to you folks, but the sad and unfortunate reality is that Canada isn’t known for producing quality fencers, which is why the best Canadian fencers go abroad to train (look at Sherraine Schalm), and why someone like Jujie Luan, even at 50 yrs of age (an old lady to some), can qualify for a spot so easily, within 15 months. Coaching is rife with favoritism, bribes used to be common (and not just here – look at the Sports Illustrated’s infamous expose of bribery and corruption in fencing – read it here) & Canadian fencing programs here need to come a LONG way before they can be on par with the Romanians, French, Italians and Hungarians.
Even the biggest recent name in Canadian fencing, Sherraine the epeeist, who was profiled on everything from Macleans to CBC to everything else, who got a sweet book deal and on occasion has been somewhat of a media darling around here, lost in her first bout during the 2004 Athens event. She’s up tomorrow in Beijing, and as much as I’d like to see her succeed, there are no others who have tread before her. No Canadians have ever won a fencing medal. Ever.
So, Elisa, tell us, why does Canadian fencing suck?
Well, first of all, we have to put aside the popular fantasy that fencing is a sport which can be played recreationally, like volleyball or ping-pong or shooting hoops. EVERY STEP of fencing is geared toward competitions. There is no such thing, honestly, as fencing for fun; from day one, enthusiastic, wide-eyed wanna-be fencers are shoved forward onto a slaughterhouse ramp of competitive bouting. You go to amateur bouts, then to “Open” national circuits, then to international competitions. It’s what it is. Even if you want to wage your own protest and say “Hell, I’m gonna fence for fun”, your opponents will be prepping for their competitions, so it is impossible to avoid the intrinsic cut-throat nature of this sport.
But back to why it sucks big-time in this country.
The hot story this Olympics was about Jujie Luan, a former medal-winner for the Chinese waaaay back when she was still a Chinese national, having been churned out by those infamous Chinese athlete factories – you know, where they pick kids from kindergarten, assign them a sport and ship them off to athletic facilities on the other side of the country, whether the parents consent or not. Well, Jujie has been in Canada for many years now – I even got to see her some years back, fencing at the Nationals – and because of the Olympics being set in China, her homeland, she came out of self-imposed retirement. Jujie is 50 years of age, but nevertheless, within 15 months she managed to qualify for Beijing. (She was defeated in her second bout, but that’s not the point). Not to take away from Luan’s story, since training for this caliber of event is remarkable for someone her age. But fencing is NOT as physically demanding as most other Olympic sports. This is why routinely fencers up to their late 30s still qualify for Olympics. In fencing you “peak” in your mid-30s.
I think what’s more interesting is that Luan managed to qualify for a spot on the Olympic team within 15 mths. Frankly, this doesn’t say much for Canadian fencing as a whole.
When you go back to look at my former schoolmate, Sherraine Schalm, you get to see that she has actually been training in Europe for the last decade; a few years in Paris, and more recently, the last four in Hungary. Why? How could such a well-publicized Canadian athlete not actually LIVE here?
Well, other than mediocre coaches, favouritism that is so rampant – where good fencers get pushed aside by coaches who would rather sleep with their students – as it happened at my alma mater, supposedly the best varsity program for fencing in this country (where Sherraine also first came to train), where we won first place after first place in the university games for nearly a decade. The truth is, Canadian Coaches tend to play favourites, which is what the Romanians and the Chinese don’t do – for them, fencing is a business, without emotions and without bi-partisanship. If you have the spark in you, they will work it out of you. That’s their job.
Secondly, and just as importantly, government funding for “lesser-popular” sports like fencing (read: not football, soccer or hockey) is simply non-existent. Athletes are somehow expected to fund themselves, their lessons, their living expenses. Grants are few and far between, and cannot be said to even remotely cover the travel expenses of attending world championships every year.
Therefore, the pool of potential gold-medal-winning fencers has been reduced to the coach-favoured and wealthy – those whose parents and family can raise or at least scrimp together the necessary funds for them to survive as they train. You must be both to last as a competitive fencer. And if a coach doesn’t favour you, and won’t train you for free (how many do it anyway? How many retired fencer-come-coaches can afford to?) and you have to keep paying 20 bucks per lesson, how many lessons do you think you can afford? It all adds up.
Of course, to be a GOOD fencer you have to live abroad, and by the time you factor in the cost of renting a shitty apartment in a double-digit arrondissement on the outskirts of Paris, (as several people I know have done) and commuting to a gym where your teammates, via the grace of the French government, have their own personal trainers and psychologists and adorn the posters on bus shelters, you realize you’ve been pretty screwed by the country you are supposed to represent.
Now how’s that for motivation? No wonder the sport is so pathetic in this country.
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