Fencing Preview

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

“The three swords used in fencing competitions are the foil, the epée and the sabre.

The foil has a flexible rectangular blade with a blunt point. Touches may be made with the point on the trunk of the body between the collar and the hipbones.

The epée, the traditional sword of duels, has a rigid triangular blade with a point that is covered by a cone with barbed points. Touches may be made on any part of the body.

The sabre is a flexible triangular blade with a blunt point. Both the point and the cutting edges can be used to score touches, which must be made on the body, above the waist, including the head and arms.

In all events, a wire is attached to the fencer’s sword. This wire runs through the fencer’s outfit to a scoring box. When contact is made on the opponent’s body, a light flashes on and a buzzer sounds to record a hit.

Over the years Olympic fencing tournaments have used a variety of formats incorporating both round-robin pools and double-elimination rounds. The format currently in use is a single-elimination tournament, such as is used in boxing and tennis.

Each match is played to 15. If the score is tied after nine minutes, one minute of sudden-death overtime is contested. Before the final minute, the referee determines, through a coin flip or drawing of lots, which fencer will win should no touch be made in the additional minute.”

[with thanks once again to David Wallechinsky and his wonderful book, The Complete Book of the Olympics]

The history of fencing in the Olympics is rich and dramatic. For all my chuntering on recently about my chances of getting sliced, diced, chopped, skewered, stabbed, slashed, hacked or in any other way run through, I was mostly just trying to make it sound exciting for you and was fairly confident that all the protective gear one has to wear would do its job. Then I made the mistake of doing some light research.

In the games in Moscow in 1980, during the semi-final of the team foil competition, the Soviet world champion Vladimir Lapitsky was accidentally run through the chest when his opponent’s foil broke his leather protective clothing. The sword severed a blood vessel but missed his heart.

In 1982, two years after winning gold in the individual foil competition in Moscow, Soviet Volodymyr Smirnov was fencing West German Matthais Behr in the world championships (which Smirnov held at the time) in Rome. During the fight, Behr’s foil snapped, pierced Smirnov’s mask, penetrated his eyeball and entered his brain. The 28-year-old Smirnov died nine days later.

Almost as bad is the number of times some light-hearted, albeit competitive, swordplay sparked such bad feeling that the protagonists resorted to actual duels in order to settle their differences.

After a dispute in 1924, the Italian-born Hungarian fencing master Italo Santelli, who was 60 years old at the time and coaching the Hungarian foil team, was so insulted by the Italian team’s accusations that he lied to an official in order to get them thrown out of the competition that he challenged Adolfo Contronei, the Italian captain, to a real duel.

They acquired permission from the government to have at it, but before they could meet, Santelli’s 27-year-old son, Giorgio, invoked the code duello and demanded that he fight in his father’s place. They met on the Italian-Hungarian border and fought with heavy sabres. After two minutes, the younger Santelli caught the Italian captain with a blow to the head that left a deep slash. The duel was stopped at that point by doctors who were in attendance.

The same games inspired another duel between an Italian and a Hungarian. This time, the former, Oreste Puliti, was a fencer and the latter, Kovacs, a judge who accused the Italian’s opponents of throwing their fights. Puliti was outraged by the accusations and threatened to cane Kovacs, and was thus promptly disqualified.

Two days later, the pair bumped into each other in a music hall. The Hungarian judge listened to the ranting Italian and then haughtily told him he couldn’t understand a word he had said, as he didn’t speak Italian. Puliti punched him in the face and asked if he had understood that any better.

The men were pulled apart, but a formal duel was proposed. Four months later, this time on the Yugoslav-Hungarian border and accompanied by seconds, swords and spectators, they got stuck in again. After an hour of slashing away at each other, the spectators separated them having grown concerned about the severity of their collective wounds. Their honour restored, the two men shook what was left of their hands and made up.

In fact, looking through the history of the Olympic fencing events, the only possibly useful tip I picked up came from the 1928 Amsterdam games. Frenchman Lucien Gaudin became one of only two people ever to have won both the individual foil and epée gold medals. His countryman and opponent in the final of the epée, Georges Buchard, later claimed that Gaudin had begged and pleaded with him to allow Gaudin to win their match – so much so that Buchard agreed to do so.

As for my opponents for Thursday night, I’ve only really met one of them.

Matt Dodwell fights epée, is the current British junior number 3 and won the silver medal in the British Youths Championships this year. He is left-handed. While this will make him more difficult to fence, I have the consolation that it will apparently “look better in the photographs”. I watched him briefly last week as he fenced Alec (who later put me through my paces). I’d love to be able to say that I spotted a weakness that I intend to exploit – other than a curious leaning towards a pint of cider rather than stout in the pub afterwards, he seemed a perfectly balanced individual - but the truth is that I’m not even good enough at fencing to realise what makes other people good. That said, I suspect the fact that he’s comfortably taller than me and has fenced at various levels for his country might just give him an edge.

I also watched Michael Coombes fence sabre last week. Michael was 3rd in the Public Schools Senior Boys Sabre Championships this year. Even with Alex telling me exactly what was going on as each touch was scored or missed, all I was seeing was a frantic mêlée of arms, swords and feet that every so often would stop when the scoring box would buzz for no reason I could discern. It got me wondering if perhaps this is the reason fencing is not a more popular event at the Olympics - I was fairly avidly glued to the TV for the duration of the last games, but I’m not sure that I saw even an edited highlight – perhaps the technicality of it all requires a higher understanding or intimate knowledge of the sport on the viewer’s part than is generally the case in order to appreciate what’s going on.

There are rules of priority that are hard to bear in mind when your mind is already full of where your feet should be or how bent your elbow is. These rules essentially mean that on some occasions, while it may look like one fencer has scored a clear hit, it is in fact the other swordsman who gets the point. As a beginner, after a while, it can begin to feel a little like a sport someone is making up the rules of as you go along in order to make sure you don’t win.

The only thing I did notice about Michael’s style that may be helpful was that he likes to move forward – then again, perhaps the chap he was fighting simply likes to retreat – either way, I’m going to adopt a tactic of running at him as fast as I can to see if I can upset his natural game. This tactic might rank up there for stupidity alongside my long held game plan should I ever find myself playing snooker against Ronnie O’Sullivan to hit the balls all over the table and disrupt the patterns he’s used to playing within.

My foil opponent is Jamie Kenber. I’m almost sure I’ve seen someone at the fencing club with that name on his back at least once, but I can’t bring his style to mind. All I really know about him is that he is ranked ninth in the senior British rankings and is the current British foil champion. In the final he beat one Richard Kruse, who fought for Britain in the Athens games. I made the mistake of looking in the Team GB official Olympic report tonight to see how Mr Kruse had done. He got to the quarterfinals, which by my (perhaps skewed) reckoning makes him one of the best eight foilists in the world. He lost out to the man who eventually took the bronze medal.

His performance was the best by a British fencer with any weapon since 1964 when Henry Hoskyns, a 33-year-old fruit farmer from Somerset, finished seventh in the foil and won the silver medal in the epée. Kruse's achievements were all the more impressive given that he had only recently graduated from university and was fighting professional opponents with superior back-up and training facilities. And then he came home and Jamie beat him. And now I have to fight Jamie. So that should be easy.

Perhaps I’ll try some of that begging and pleading after all.


Poll Star said...

I think I'm right in saying that the French won a lot of fencing medals in Athens. Maybe that kept it off UK TV.

John said...

The French, Italians and Hungarians seem to be the boys for the old fencing all right. If they're not winning, they're flouncing off in a huff or challenging people to real duels... or both. To think, the whole British beef embargo could probably have been sorted out by sending Richard Kruse over with a foil and a ridiculous moustache.

Anonymous said...

Je n'ai pas bien compris cette histoire de moustache ridicule...

Anonymous said...

j'exige une explication !
Sinon je me verrai obligée de régler cet affront au duel...


John said...

Astérix et Obélix?
De Gaulle?
Robert Pires?

Il faut que je continue?

Anonymous said...

I detect a "snake in the grass" from your anonymous (!) French commentator--
Beware John--"AS" might just stand for "A SNAKE"
dum dee dum dum aaaaaaaaaaaah!
don't worry about the leg region--those white tights will protect you admirably, I'm sure.
Good luck John

John said...

I thought you'd given up drinking cooking sherry before noon, mother...?

Anonymous said...

luckily for you, kruse isnt 8th in the world ranking, he's only 54th at the moment. so definitely beatable. making jamie no problem right? good luck!

John said...

Kruse may be 54th, but apparently Jamie is 9th. Still, rankings are nonsense in most sports - 1st, 9th, 148th - whatever - he's the British Champion, which makes him pretty decent in my book (which is of course a far better judge than 'rankings' *cough*).

John said...

Oh no, wait - Jamie's 9th in Britain, not the world. Kruse is 54th in the world, not Britain.


It'll be a breeze.

As long as they don't produce as a last minute surprise some slavering Hungarian with a duelling licence and an invitation to the border.

Amateur said...

Did you say Hungarian? Here's some more inspirational material for you.