In a dark hall, 2 men face off with swords. Their faces are hidden, there's a quiet respect between them and no one is sure who will emerge the victor. They salute and advance; one takes the initiative and strikes. There are flashes of green and red light, someone has won… But enough of the Paris Grand Prix, I want to talk to you about Fencing and Star Wars. Or rather I want to talk to you about what I perceive as a lack of confidence in the image of Fencing, what it says about the sport and what it says about the public's perception of it.
Every few years something big arrives in the media. It might be a blockbuster spy film, it might be a new entry in a well-known genre juggernaut and it could even be the supposed resurrection of an almost forgotten genre of film, the swashbuckler. The important point is that it features a "sword". What happens next is inevitable, the sport will try to cash-in. It will try and take some crumbs from the mass media table in the hope that please-oh-please will a few people take up the sport.
For a moment let's be honest with ourselves. The sport of Fencing is not a popular sport; it is a minority sport and likely to remain that way. But it's also a minority sport with a glorious past, a history with which almost everyone has a romantic association. At least at first. Why do we get involved in Fencing? Ask beginners and most reel off their version of the romantic myth, two men (it's almost always men) fighting each other on a misty moor over some slight, two mystic samurai having an ideological duel to the death … How many beginners do we speak to who say that they've seen the Olympics and think that Fencing is what they want to do? I'd wager not many and I don't blame them because Fencing is not well served by its representation in the wider culture.
Quite a few sports get good coverage in film, in the press and in literature. Sports films cover particular sports very well, the more popular a sport the more likely you are to see something good made about it or at least work that is broadly representational and true to its spirit. Of course there's a certain formula to many of these stories because that's what most people want. I love sports films: I admire the typical struggle against adversity in a Boxing film, I enjoy the way American myth plays out in a good Baseball film or how a boy can be redeemed through falconry. In the vast majority of these films I never get the sense that I am being lied to, that if I were to dip my toes into that sport I would find something different. Of course it would be different but different in the way that the world looks different through a pane of glass. Smudged, haloed but recognisably the world of that thing. Except Baseball which is portrayed well in every aspect except how boring it actually is.
Fencing though, fencing is not well served.
Think about how many good films about the modern sport of fencing exist. How many, one or two? And when I say modern sport I mean the sport as it is practiced today and not the sport as it was in the 30s and 40s or the 19th century or even earlier. The obvious examples might be the film By The Sword or the fencing scenes in the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. Please don't talk to me about that scene in Die Another Day. Really think how many times you have seen a good representation of the sport in a wider cultural context. Think about those times the sport makes it into the news and the language that's used. Do you think the sport is presented well?
This brings me to Star Wars. Who can deny the power of the Force (of advertising)? Since 1977 it's been a big deal, arguably rewriting the direction of Hollywood and certainly making George Lucas a very wealthy man. Its recent (re-?) resurrection means that everywhere you look something is trying to tie itself to it. And wait, it features a sword, in fact the most romantic sword of all - one made of laser-light! So Fencing feels the need to get in on that action. There are news items written that reference Star Wars, clubs offer instruction in using a lightsabre, everywhere you go you see the famous font from the title card. It's too much and it's doing us a disservice.
This isn't an argument against using whatever is fashionable as a marketing tool. Fencing can of course exploit a brand as much as any other sport, toy manufacturer or fast food outlet. Sith branded epee blades anyone? If it's fashionable to use the trappings of Star Wars then so be it.
Instead I argue that it is not in Fencing's best interests to continue the lie that it is anything other than the sport of Fencing. If your beginners turn up expecting fantasy-sword one-on-one action then they should be disappointed. It's not their fault that every news item, every piece of literature ties the sport to a nostalgic fantasy far far away. That's our fault.
Fencing has lots of rules, it is complex and it is athletic - requiring a lot of effort to learn. My argument is that it's our responsibility to present the sport on our terms. We must be honest with ourselves and with others about the sport. We need to tell them why we love it and we need to tell them the real story of it. This is why I am a fan of Yuki Ota's video about fencing. It presents the sport honestly as something modern and interesting, tells you how it works with minimal reference to any nonsense in the zeitgeist. I wish more of us had that confidence. I want us to be unafraid of honesty, saying "I love the sport of fencing!" because that's telling the truth: Fencing is what it is.