The gentlemanly sport of fencing.
WORDS IRWIN CRUZ
There is an iconic photo that shows the Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal in the courtyard of Juan Luna’s Paris home. Dressed in a fencing jacket, he stands proudly in a contrapposto while his weapon bends as he pushes it against the gravel. He is flanked by Luna and Valentin Ventura, the three of them taking a pause from fencing practice as Luna’s wife watches from afar.
Another grainier photo shows Luna and Rizal in the midst of a bout. Here, Rizal is shown in full lunge as he attempts to strike with his sword. Luna, meanwhile, parries the attack.
These two images show that Filipino engagement with fencing is old and enduring. Despite this longtime fascination, the sport is perceived to be the preoccupation of the few. The perception is understandable given the relatively low coverage in sports news and its established image in popular culture.
Many still associate the activity with the royal courts of Europe, a representation reinforced by stories such as The Three Musketeers, a novel written by the French author Alexandre Dumas, himself a practicing fencer.
The history of fencing, however, goes further back. A report written for the International Fencing Federation says that there is evidence that fencing was practiced in Ancient Egypt, where opponents fought with swords and donned masks. Duels were also seen in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and periods that succeeded, when wars were waged and won with swords.
After the arrival of gunpowder, swordplay persisted as a form of leisure. Modern fencing is said to have started in 19th century France, where the rules, teaching methods, and arms of the sport were finally codified. By this time, the three weapons—foil, pée and sabre—had distinguished themselves. Furthermore, the sport ceased to be the exclusive pastime of dukes and princes as members of the mercantile and industrial class began picking it up.
Fencing was one of the original nine events to appear in the first modern Olympic Games. In 1896, 15 male fencers from Austria, Denmark, France and Greece came to Athens to compete. Female fencers only started competing in the 1924 Paris Games.
The London 2012 Olympic Games saw 212 fencers vie for medals in 10 events. Participants included French-flag bearer Laura Flessel-Colovic, China’s Li Na, Japan’s Yuki Ota, America’s Tim Morehouse, and Italy’s Aldo Montano, whose namesake grandfather was also a fencer and a medalist in the 1948 London Games. The Philippines was not represented this year. In fact, only two Filipino fencers have had the honor of becoming Olympians: Percival Alger, who competed in Seoul in 1988; and Walter Torres, who competed in Barcelona in 1992.
The Philippine Fencing Association, the sport’s local governing body, reports that there are around 2,000 fencers in the country. Out of this number, some 250 regularly compete in the association’s monthly open competition. (Other countries also suffer a similar low membership count. According to one fencing website, the US fencing association has 22,000 members; Germany’s federation, 30,000; and Sweden, 4,000).
But the tide is turning as more and more hobbyists try their hand at fencing. One of these recreational fencers is Myra Cruz, a 59-year-old lawyer from San Juan, who has been playing the sport for more than a decade. She trains with her personal coach and has her own fencing hall. The ambidextrous fencer plays all three fencing weapons with both hands. She also practices arnis, precision shooting, and dancesports. But of all her avocations, she believes that it is fencing that improves her coordination the most.
Filipino fencers are also joining more international competitions. The Philippine squad has already won a slew of medals in several Southeast Asian Games. Private initiatives such as Ezkrima, a fencing training program established by former members of the national squad, are bringing the sport to more leisure players.
Fencing requires a high degree of physical ability, stamina, and mastery of techniques. It is also a mental game. You need to respond quickly to the exchange of successive strikes as you try to outwit your opponent in making the first hit. Age and fitness might give a player an advantage, but more often than not, the man who thinks and reacts faster will make the hit.
"The combination of moves is innumerable, and it’s up to you to think constantly of new ones. In a 15-point match against a person whose playing style you barely know, the moment you stop thinking about your game plan is the moment you start losing," says Brian Tamase, a medalist at the recent Philippine National Games.
In fencing, success is decided on the piste, a 14-meter long metal strip where the bouts or fights take place.
For this writer, the piste is a shiny, rough-surfaced battlefield, where you must constantly try to hold your line. Once you put on your mask, the din of the audience fades away. You are all alone, facing two adversaries: your opponent and yourself. You have to get over your nerves, analyze your mistakes, and draft your moves.
All the while, you are also reading, anticipating and countering your opponent’s “intentions.” You have to realign your moves quickly because both defeat and victory can be instantaneous.
Fencing has ever been a bastion of gentlemanly behavior. The sport’s white jackets and breeches exude respectability, the kind ilustrados showed at play and in real life. Indeed, a certain decorum is demanded on and off the piste, despite (forgive the pun) all that sabre-rattling. It isn’t surprising that no matter how dramatic or bellicose the bout might be, it must begin and end with fencers saluting the presider and each other.
Sidebar: A modern trinity of weapons
Foil. A light thrusting square-sectioned weapon with a pistol grip and a safety button at its tip. Its bell or handguard is saucer-shaped. Hits are made by thrusting the weapon forward against the target area of the opponent.
Target: torso only, as it mimics attacks on the most vital parts of the body.
Épée. Like the foil, it also has a pistol grip and hits are made by thrusting its tip against the target area. However, the blade is heaviest of all the three weapons and it has a large handguard that is chalice-like in shape.
Target: the entire body, including the head, arms, legs and feet.
Sabre. A cutting weapon because points are made by slashing the edge of the blade against a target as well as thrusting its tip. Its has a wraparound bell and a handlebar grip.
Target: upper body, i.e. the head, arms and torso as it mimics combat on horseback.