A Quick Run-Down on Why Sport Fencing Is So Boring
Starting tomorrow, various Olympians will be competing in one of the sillier modern sports: fencing, the ancient dance of death in which everyone wears suits that look like Mormon underwear and tries to stick one another with car antennae.
Modern fencing isn’t all that popular of a spectator sport despite the inherent appeal of stabby things. It lacks the drama of staged or on-screen fighting; competitors are limited to a narrow strip of track and simple back-and-forth movement. No circling, no terrain, and not all that much actual fencing before someone scores and they stop the whole thing. Most of us, if we want a brief moment of awkward thrusting followed by a disappointing pause, can just go down to the local bar and try our luck there.
Also off-putting are the rules. They’re arcane, for lack of a better word.
You would assume that a sport based around swordfighting, however modernized and non-lethal, would still have the same basic definition for who wins — the guy that doesn’t have the business end of a sword jabbed into an important part of his body. As a victory condition, it would not have been ambivalent back when the sword went all the way in instead of stopping on your clothing.
If you come in with that basic assumption fencing gets frustrating quickly. A set of rules about “right of way” determines whether a “touch” (hit) on the other person actually scores or not. Get the wrong positioning or timing and it doesn’t matter if you struck a “killing” blow or not. This is frustrating to the layman, who has a deep-seated and one might even say instinctive belief that getting stabbed is getting stabbed regardless of circumstance.
We can blame gentlemen for all this, as usual.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as dueling got popular, there was a great deal of pressure from fencing “masters” to follow rules of right-of-way as a way of discouraging recklessness. It looked bad if your pupils kept getting stabbed, and depending on where you were there was all kinds of trouble from the local government if people died dueling, so a system that encouraged defense over offense was beneficial to everyone involved (apart from the occasional legitimately-aggrieved party who really, really, really wanted to stick his opponent with something sharp until he died).
The right-of-way rules caught on quickly, and by the time modern war was making dueling entirely obsolete, the only people left with an interest in transforming it into a non-violent sport were people brought up learning to fence under right-of-way. And that’s why the fencing that’ll be on TV starting tomorrow (today, really, with the time zone difference) is so boring! Aren’t you glad you asked?
For my part, I feel like we have enough bizarre sports and variant forms of said bizarre sports that fencing could easily get away with a “freestyle” category — lose the track and the stupid right-of-way rules, keep the suits and safety gear, and up the pressure needed to detect a “touch” a bit so that you only score from a blow that would have gone a good way into the other person’s unarmored body. Interest (and therefore funding) would soar, at least among the nerdy white kid population.
Or we could just go on doing things the way that well-bred gentlemen did them in the 18th century, because they’re a fantastic role model. Right?