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2012 Olympics: Sherraine vs. Hungary?

Posted by E on August 14, 2008

In the furious media blitz that followed Sherraine Schalm’s defeat at the hand of Hungarian epeeist (and former teammate) Ildiko Mincza-Nebald, two battle-camps quickly formed: those eager to defend her heated outburst at the end of a rough match, and those who called her conduct unsportsmanlike and shameful to Canada. So which is it? What really happened?

Thanks to CBC’s sanitization of the tape, Canadians won’t really know, unless they were up at 4 or 6 am and happened to catch a glimpse of the scandal that was to come. I use the word “scandal” loosely, since to a certain degree this is a lot of hoopla over essentially a bag of beans. But it got sensationalized because Canadians just don’t do these things, especially pretty blonde girls from Alberta who are regular guests on CBC radio.

So what is this big thing that Sherraine did? Apparently, the match itself wasn’t pretty. A lot of uncontrollable screaming went on, both herself and Ildiko trying to one-up each other, getting overly aggressive, etc. I’ve seen that a lot more in men’s fencing, but that’s not to say it isn’t common in women’s events. There’s a lot of theatrics, temper tantrums and bullying that go into screwing with your opponent’s head – I’ve been guilty of it on rare occasions, and I challenge any fencer who’s been around the block once or twice to tell me this isn’t so.

So after Sherraine’s match ended, she refused to shake Ildiko’s hand – which I’ve also done once after a particularly emotional bout a long time ago (and I got yellow card-ed for it). I don’t think that’s a terribly huge deal, considering the frenzied battle-cry that came out of Ildiko when she won and the way her eyes rolled back in her head – let’s just say she didn’t come across as a likeable person or one you’d run into in a dark alley at night.

But then the moment came that everyone’s been talking about: after refusing to shake Ildiko’s hand, Sherraine turned to the Hungarian team in seething anger and pointed her epee at them, then shouted “Fuck you all!”

Later she apologized, the kind of apology you make when you’ve been caught with your pants down in front of the camera and you have no choice but to say something to make it all go away. Did she mean it? Hell, no. She was sorry that it was caught on camera, that people were offended and that she came across as unprofessional because of that – I’m sure she feels sorry for the way things unfolded. But does she still carry that anger in her which spilled out on the piste yesterday? Yes, of course she still does. It came across scathingly clear in the interview with CBC the following morning.

There are certain things Sherraine talked about in that interview that no one in their right mind would question – the lack of funding, for both training and hiring coaches, and the resulting scarcity of quality training in Canadian fencing programs. It’s the same thing I blogged about yesterday, the day before her last Olympic bout. The problem is, there is a lot of emotion, passion and anger interwoven in her words, and those which made me bristle, like so many others, were the blanket statements regarding how Hungarians hate Canadians simply because they are strangers on their turn.

First of all, in order to believe this we are to assume there are no personality clashes between fencers, which let me tell you, is a pipe dream. I’d wager anything that hostility was there before this bout – those two women I saw in that Olympic bout hated each others’ guts. When you add the fact that Ildiko and others on her team obviously felt threatened by a foreign fencer coming into their country, into their gym, training and yes, bettering herself, they wanted to get rid of her. As much as I actually do sympathise with Sherraine, when it comes to the Olympics, it’s every woman for herself.

From what I gather, Ildiko was ranked slightly below Sherraine on the world ranking list (Sherraine in 5th place, Ildiko in 12th) and possibly felt that she was giving Sherraine the advantage of using a Hungarian coach, a Hungarian gym, and practice with fencers who she would have to defeat – in the process “stealing” ideas, learning of other girls’ secret fencing habits and shortcomings, etc. So Ildiko went to the coach and complained, and probably other Hungarian fencers did as well, as Sherraine was shut out of the 2-week training camp just before the Olympics.

It’s really too bad that happened, although the coach did do his best by apparently hooking her up with another athletes’ training regimen. But imagine what would’ve happened if Sherraine DID beat Ildiko in Beijing – and the scandal that would ensue in the Budapest papers – we allowed a Canadian to train with us, learn all our habits, steal our tricks, and now she beat us out of the Olympics. What I am trying to say is – the coach had no choice but to listen to the complaints of his Hungarian athletes. His job and reputation were at stake.

Sherraine, if you are reading this, it’s not because I disagree with your opinion, because if I were in your position I’d be mad as hell, and I’d need more than “a couple of brandies” as you put it, to hold me back from trying to wring Ildiko’s neck. But you need to tell yourself that your Hungarian coach didn’t really have a choice in doing what he did. And in the end, your opponents and you ARE on different teams. But that doesn’t mean that Hungarians in general hate Canadians – although many of them may tend to be more than a tad bit xenophobic and abrasive. This wasn’t personal. Perhaps winning gold isn’t all that you are meant for. Maybe this event is meant to inspire you, down the line, to become an advocate for increased athletic funding, or recognition of fencing as a sport in Canada.

No matter what happens, I wish Sherraine will take the time she so desperately needs to regroup – and actually think not only about “showing them” or “beating them” in 2012, but whether she really needs this in her life right now. I know from the media coverage and her own blog that things have been difficult in her personal life, and I assume that now she will have to leave Hungary and find a place for herself again. For someone of her age, a cross-roads lays ahead – there are questions of life and priority, biological clocks and decisions to be made. Another 4 years of training, for a few minutes on the piste might be a glorious thing when you have a medal around your neck, but honestly, what does it all mean?

There has to be more than this. There is more to the universe than winning and losing a bloody match in an obscure sport that most people ridicule as elitist and biased, both observations not entirely untrue.

I remember the moment when I chose to walk away from fencing. It wasn’t simply a decision to either quit and be a loser, or be an athlete in a Nike ad and “Just do it” – give my life to fencing and never ever question that decision; to forsake travel and studying and writing books, to give up meeting someone who appreciated my mind rather than my exotic ability to fight with swords. No, when I walked away from fencing, when I divorced fencing, I didn’t quit – I saved myself. My pride, my sanity, the very meaning of my existence as a human being.

My worth didn’t reside in that metal stick in my hand. In that moment, I became a multi-faceted person, a human being once again instead of just a fencer. I became the writer I was always meant to be. It was the best decision I could have made for myself.

The sad thing is, when people leave their sports, when they get older – professional ballet dancers, gymnasts, and yes, fencers – they look back at their life (if lucky, a life filled with accolades and medals) and live on that for sustenance. They live in poverty, like so many artists and writers do, surrounded by masses of other people who simply don’t understand the kind of dedication that had compelled them to forego financial decisions that would prevent them from ending up on social assistance.

The answer to the question “Was it all worth it?” can only be answered by the same individual who is asking it. But if you’re not certain of the answer, if you judge your personal worth as that stick in your hand, that four-minute bout overseen by a biased referee, then you need to reinvent yourself. To drop the excuses, as valid as they may be, and realize this isn’t about the sport, or the sword, or the Hungarians – but about you. And what you are supposed to do with the rest of your life.

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