My love and hate affair with fencing
Posted by E on August 13, 2012
In light of the recent events involving South Korean fencer Lam Shin being robbed of the oportunity to fence the gold-silver medal match at the London 2012 Olympics, my thoughts once again return to fencing. How could I not think of it, seeing this 25-year old girl sobbing on the piste, reliving every moment of hard work and passion that led her to this moment of travesty?
Can the skills of sword-fighting survive as an art and a sport alone, without the bastardization of modern competitions? Can fencing move beyond a long history of dirty backroom deals and bought bouts?
I don’t know, and I’m not optimistic about it. But every time I realize how out of shape I am and how much I’d like to pick up a foil again, the traumas of my varsity years at the University of Ottawa come back to me. The unjust coaches who slept with athletes, the overt favouritism, the occasional fencing scandal that broke out (in magazines such as Sports Illustrated) involving money exchanging hands and bouts being sold off….and yet in my hearts of hearts, I must confess that I miss it – the sensation of that metal against my hand, the sound (the music) when blade meets blade, a cacophony of excitement, a dash of fear, and more than your fair share of exhuberance.
I have to thank fencing for letting me explore my demons. I first picked up a foil the year after I’d come out of hiding after providing information against a group of dangerous white supremacist extremists, information that was used to dismantle their organization. I lived in hiding for over a year all across Canada and by the time I managed to get myself into university as a mature student, I was full of anger and resentment at having discovered that our own government – through its intelligence body, CSIS – had co-founded and bankrolled the very group that had recruited me and other teenagers.
Fencing helped channel my anger into purpose. It drove me to pursue excellence. It empowered me to finally believe, for the first time, that I could be a normal human being. A normal nineteen-year old, whatever “normal” meant. Sure, I didn’t have parents cheering from the sidelines at competitions or coaches who rubbed my shoulders between bouts, but on that piste, across from average college girls, I felt like I was finally on par with the rest of the world – and consequently, that I could have a future once again.
And then I came crashing into the injustices of the sport, the daily murdering of the spirit that favoritism can deliver, and the overarching elitism that lays entrenched in the foundations of the sport.
With no money and no coaches willing to give me free lessons (all the while other girls were being invited to coaches’ houses for lunches, dinners and free training), my fencing days were numbered – sure I could have continued,but the track I was on involved a rapid trajectory to the top, and I refused to accept recreational goals.
And yet I miss it. With age comes perspective, and I realize that competitive fencing made me miserable and angry. Sure I won bouts, but at what cost? These days, with my goals changed and wisdom stemming out of experience, I long for that sensation of being in control of my body, of a blade that is an extention of both my arm and my will. And yet I am afraid that the sport has been utterly corrupted by the competitive slant that has overtaken it over the last hundred years. Whereas once upon a time fencing was practically a requirement, it slowly receded into the arms of the noble classes and the elites who have since turned it into an ugly and corrupt enterprise.
I don’t know what else to say, other than I miss it, I’m afraid of it, I long for it.
I long for the days when fencing will be less about the Olympics and more about the sheer love of bettering oneself. But in the end, unlike soccer or volleyball or swimming, which can be played simply for the fun of it, when it comes to fencing I don’t really think that it is possible.
But oh, how I’d like it to be.
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