During the 1982 Fencing World Championships held in Rome, the reigning Olympic champion and foilist Vladimir Smirnov of Russia was drawn against the West German, Matthias Behr. The fencers were called to the piste, and the fight soon began.
During the 1982 Fencing World Championships held in Rome, the reigning Olympic champion and foilist Vladimir Smirnov of Russia was drawn against the West German, Matthias Behr. The fencers were called to the piste, and the fight soon began. As Behr launched one of his attacks, however, his blade immediately broke. Unable to stop his advance, Behr’s broken blade went through the mesh of Smirnov’s mask, through his eye socket, and into his brain. Vladimir Smirnov died nine days later. His death prompted an overhaul of the safety regulations of the modern Olympic sport of fencing.
Today, blades are made from the iron-alloy Maraging Steel, and all Federation International d’Escrime (FIE) standard protective clothing is manufactured from Kevlar, a fiber known primarily for its use in bullet-proof vests.
However captivating this story may be, it will never change the problem that has plagued fencing since the modern game’s conception. While this problem does not concern performance-enhancing drugs, endemic in many other Olympic sports, it should still be noted that the pre-Beijing 2008 Olympics sample of world number one foilist, Andrea Baldini, revealed the banned substance diuretic furosemide in his system and resulted in a lengthy ban. As the world of fencing recovers from this rare and appalling development, however, the FIE has been preoccupied with what it deems to be a far greater issue: turning modern fencing into a mass, popular spectator sport.
With the introduction of transparent visors and Light Emitting Diodes (LED) in the fencer’s mask, the eradication of the ‘flick hit’, and the planned measure to extend the target area in modern foil to include the fencer’s bib, the FIE has tried desperately to achieve this goal. While new technology on the piste of play and the improvement of the sport’s safety will always be welcomed, restrictions to the sport itself have proven both unpopular and unsuccessful in drawing a larger audience.
The purpose of this article is not to profess some kind of conservative resentment of the evolutionary
Behr’s broken blade went through the mesh of Simonov’s mask, through his eye socket, and into his brain
aspects of fencing, but rather to alert the readership to one important belief: fencing will never attract large amounts of spectators who do not fence themselves. The only way to increase the number of viewers is to increase the number of people who actually fence. Fencing time, fencer priority, the three disciplines of foil, epee and sabre, and the incredibly complex rules of the game should not be simplified and sacrificed for a broader audience. They should be embraced and passed on to a new generation of fencers, so that those watching the sport in years to come will understand and appreciate how beautiful the spectacle really is. This is an important part of the philosophy of Dublin University Fencing Club; a philosophy that has brought much success.
With the Intervarsity Trophy and the Colours titles versus University College Dublin (UCD) and Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) in the medal cabinet, and with the men’s and women’s national student foilist champions in Louis Arron and Kate Harvey respectively, as well as a total of seven fencers who earned international call-ups for the senior and student Irish teams last season (Louis Arron, Lachlan Sykes, Kate Harvey, Maria Treacy, Colm Flynn, Declan Gibbons, and Hannah Lowry O’Reilly), the fencing club of Trinity College is currently the most successful salle d’armes in Ireland. It is from this position that a modest statement can be made against the misdirected ambitions of the FIE. Every year, Dublin University Fencing Club looks to attract new members and reveal the intricacies of a sport synonymous with finesse, tactical-thinking and raw emotion. Only this sort of mentality will increase the popularity of modern fencing, and help turn the sport into a mass spectacle for its followers.
As Trinity College’s esteemed fencing club looks to improve at all levels of the spectrum this season – retaining its titles as well as increasing both its membership and international prestige – the Federation International d’Escrime should take note. Concentrate on keeping the sport clean, increase the numbers of those fencing, and, most importantly, ensure that the beauty and complexity of the modern game is maintained.
For more information on Dublin University Fencing Club, visit www.fencing.tcdlife.ie.