‘Sword-fighting’ is better played than watched

FencingOver the years, I’ve become pretty familiar with the situation of having to explain how fencing works to people who aren’t familiar with it, a situation that’s probably familiar to all advocates of slightly obscure sports and hobbies (e.g. fans of lacrosse, polo or underwater basket-weaving, to name a few). Given how laborious this task has become, I’ll instead refer you to wikipedia, if you’re interested in the actual details. For the purpose of this article, it’s basically just sword-fighting.

So it’s not the most popular of sports in Britain, but fencing has been a feature of every modern Olympic games yet, including the present one, where this Saturday the podium for the women’s foil was hogged by the Italians. This is a testament to fencing’s popularity in Italy, where it enjoys an almost mainstream level of interest; Valentina Vezzali, who won third place on Saturday in the women’s foil event, was Italy’s flag bearer in the opening parade.

If you happened to watch the event on TV, you might have noticed the wireless electronic scoring systems attached to the fencers’ masks, a stark contrast to the image of a sport best known from 17th century duels. This is part of what seems to be a concerted effort to make fencing as modern and accessible as possible. And yet, speaking as someone who’s fenced for nigh on ten years, I can’t deny that it makes a terrible spectator sport. Bouts begins with a muttering of French from the referee and consist of two fencers waving thin, practically invisible swords at each other, in an unfathomable game of strategy and lightning fast reactions. To make things worse, the scoring system is somewhat subjective, and places a lot of importance on the referee deciding who has made an attack.

Now one might level similar criticisms against other sports with somewhat arcane and incomprehensible rules and strategies – cricket comes to mind for example, a sport which has no (OK, well only a slight) shortage of admirers. But I’m told that with enough patience even cricket becomes intelligible, whereas fencing suffers from a more fundamental problem: it’s pretty hard to see what’s going on in the first place. The “swords” are less than a centimetre thick and waved around at a pace which defies even slow motion attempts to see what’s going on. The sheer pace of the bouts denies commentators the chance to explain the subtleties of individual points, and without that, all that’s left is two people running at each other and one winning for no apparent reason.

And in addition to this, the sheer speed of play puts too much emphasis on tiny moments. After a disputed hit in the women’s epee semi-final this Monday, about an hour was taken up with officials discussing the rules in order to determine whether the hit was deserved.

In narrative terms, this is probably the point in the article where I present a cunning solution to the problem, but in all honesty, I don’t see one. Instead, I’d recommend that rather than watching fencing, people go and give it a try. Everything that makes it a bad sport to watch makes it a good one to play, from the subtlety of the tactics, to the pace and unrelenting athleticism required; a bit like competitive knitting. Probably.

Unfortunately for fencing, the number of people who watch a sport is correlated to the number of people who do it. Popularity leads to investment, leading to larger prizes and sponsorship, which give more people an incentive to take part. This is particular clear in the case of France and Italy, both countries where fencing is very popular, and both with extremely strong fencing teams. By contrast, Britain’s top female foilists (the foil, as you’ve know hopefully discovered from wikipedia by now, is one of the three main weapons) went out in the first and second rounds, making no real impact on the field.

Britain now has very few chances to gain a medal in fencing in London, with Richard Kruse (probably the best overall hope) going out in the first round. The team matches are coming up later, but with the Italians fencing as well as they have been, the chances are slim at best for British success. I’ll be watching, but I won’t blame you if you’re not.