The smell of fencing
An homage to a sport that isn’t like other sports
I think it had something to do with the smell. Not that it smelled good, far from it. It was more of a moist odor. Sweaty, obviously, but also with hints of leather and steel. And old clothes. Sour and rich at the same time.
Whenever I try to explain my fascination for fencing, I always return to the smell. I’ve never experienced a similar smell. I recognize it in a microsecond when it’s there, but I’m incapable of abstracting it in my head the way can with cinnamon, a summer rain, my darling’s neck, or a cold beer on an outdoor seating the first warm day of spring.
And now I sense it again, albeit faintly. I’m sitting in a thoroughly air-conditioned press room in a small suburb of Shanghai (small by Chinese standards, which means about six and a half million inhabitants). The door is slightly ajar and a few meters away is one of the halls where the 2018 World Championship takes place. You can hear the screams, the shrill screams; women’s foil is going on. In a few hours the screams will be coarser, with more anger than frustration: men’s epee. Tomorrow, when the men’s sabre begins, the screams will be deafening. But all the time you can sense it, that smell.
As I recall it, it was a day in early fall 1987. The door to the training hall was open and from it, I felt the sort of heat that can only be produced by bodies in motion. And, of course, that smell.
It was a smell that told me something there and then. It was so different, so apart from everything I had ever confronted in my thirteen years of living, that I instinctively felt at home. It was as if it said: you — who aimlessly wander around in some pre-depressive state of constant angst and confusion — are welcome here. It doesn’t matter that you’re not like … the others. I realize that the logic isn’t impeccable: Kalle, 13 years old, is on an activity day, walks into a shady basement and feels a smell that makes him feel welcome.
But emotions aren’t logic. Logic isn’t emotions. I felt a funny smell, I felt welcome. Bottom line is, something was born then.
It was an ”activity day”. You got to choose different sports. I chose fencing because it wasn’t like any other sport. Balls have always made me confused. I don’t particularly enjoy tormenting myself until it hurts. Practicing team sports goes against basically every single fiber in my soul. Fencing seemed like the least demeaning alternative.
But the thing is, I loved sports. I still love sports. I love the emotions, these almost-emotions that allow us emotion phobics to feel stuff without it having any effect on our daily lives. There’s happy, and there’s sport-happy. There’s angry and there’s sport-angry. Sad — sport-sad. Angst — sport-angst. Humiliation — sport-humiliation. Et cetera. It’s a prefix that allows emotions that otherwise would’ve had incalculable consequences for one’s life, and you don’t want that. At least not if you, like me — and most men — have a deep fueled phobia for emotions.
So. I loved sports, but I had never felt sporty. And I desperately wanted to be sporty, in some damn way. Being good at something physical (not essays, history, Stephen King or Tolkien) is important. Particularly for boys, I imagine. It gives you an unspoken authority in the heteronormative locker room that boys in their lower teens constantly are in. Where there are just as unspoken boundaries for what type of physical activity that has a value. Ice hockey and soccer, sky-high value. Foxtrot and ballet, less than zero. Fencing? Highly unclear.
Exactly this limbo in the value scale of sports (swords = cool, stockings = not so cool), was part of what attracted me. It made my surrounding insecure, and since I lacked the ability to make them scared or impressed for real, insecurity was a reaction I could make use of.
What happened was that I tried fencing, enjoyed it, started training seriously and proved to have some talent. 1990, as a 16-year-old, I became Stockholm champion. That was the zenith of my career.
I continued going to the shady basement with the moist odor. I learnt marché, ripost, arret, rompé, degagé, engagé, sixt, octave, flêche, coupé, and countless other words. I got a right arm that was twice the size of my left arm. I got small, circular bruises over my whole body, occasional whips over my chest that hurt in a good way, my calves and thighs became tough and fast and I learned to yell ”HAAAAPA” when I scored the decisive hit at 4–4.
I learned fencing. I learned to love fencing. I still love fencing.
The question is why. I’ve gotten that question several times. What is it that makes fencing so fun that you dedicate a significant part of your spare time doing it? Why do you sacrifice a week of your vacation to go to China (of all places) to hang around in a sterile sporting venue?
My sacrifice isn’t bigger than that of any little league coach in any sport, so I think you have to begin with the basic realization that sport does this to certain people. The world of sports is abundant with men and women who without any obvious reason dedicate hours, days, weeks, and months to things like riding, soccer, figure skating, orienteering, karate, or sports dancing. Everyone thinks their sport is a little bit elevated over other sports. A little harder, with finer nuances. A little bit more entertaining or advanced. Et cetera. For each sport there’s a set of such arguments. Naturally, fencing has its own set of arguments.
Often you hear the expression ”physical chess”, meaning that it’s as tactical and theoretical as chess, only that it takes place under physical pressure during fragments of a second. Which is correct — fencing is highly tactical and strategic, and at the same time lightning fast and considerably more physically demanding than one might think at a first glance.
Other expressions that occur are ”refined”, ”fight” and “rich in tradition”. Those are also correct. Some find it “elegant” as well, but anyone who has felt the smell from the inside of a mask knows that that odor negates everything that even touches elegance.
But when I stand beside one of the pistes here in Wuxi, I realize that, for me, it’s not about chess, traditions or elegance at all. In my book, the raison d’être of fencing is something completely different, something much more faceted than what is possible to phrase in a single sentence.
I see it in Ester Schreiber’s eyes seconds before she enters the piste to face the Japanese wunderkind Yuka Ueno in her first direct elimination bout in this world championship. I hear it in Bartek Mancewicz’s ecstatic scream after he’s won a fifteen touch-bout in the 128-tableau. I hear it in Emelie Mumm’s trembling voice after the loss against a Russian with 15–8.
I feel it in every desperate protest from the sabre- and foil-fencers when a judgment doesn’t go their way. The sabre fencer Daryl Homer from USA remains on the piste and refuses to accept the decision of the judge. He argues, gestures. His coach is equally upset. It ends with Homer leaving the venue after throwing his sabre to the floor.
I hear it in the dejected “KURVA” from the Czech epee fencer who slams his four weapons to the floor after having been eliminated the first day of competition. I see it in the Italian sabre fencer who discreetly steps out of the venue to inhale a cigarette. I sense it when I watch the Lithuanian coach stumble into the hotel’s elevator an early afternoon, after God knows how many glasses of vodka. I hear it in the screams of the coaches, the teammates and the crowd in countless languages: Russian, Hungarian, Korean, Arabic, French, Italian, German, English, Chinese. And more.
In all this, there’s a red line, everyone who reads it can see it. But how do you put it into words? Just “emotions” doesn’t do it. Neither does “passion” nor “dedication” — it’s too general. It has to be something more, and the closest I can get is probably “deviant” or “atypical”. Fencing isn’t like other sports. It deviates from the norm in several ways: it’s a martial art where you’re not allowed to touch each other. It’s so fast that it’s close to impossible for the untrained eye to watch a fight and enjoy it. It’s an old sport, rich in tradition, that uses quite advanced technology for the judging. And so on: deviant all of it, which is both a burden and an asset.
For Swedish elite fencing this has become somewhat of a hindrance. When I spoke to a coach recently, he told me that many parents sign their kids up for fencing because they’re so hopelessly bad at every other sport. They believe that since fencing differs from other sports, it might suit their kid — who also is different (and needs some exercise).
“I mean, they can barely run. They’ve been sitting down all their lives and have no physique, no coordination, no will to move at all. Naturally they’re welcome to the club — everyone’s welcome — but I can’t build an elite fencer from a kid like that”, said the coach, who prefers to be anonymous for natural reasons.
“Getting good technically takes ten years. Learning tactics and the psychological game takes just as long. In order to produce an elite fencer, I need an athletically talented ten-year-old who’s willing to train hard — and who has a psyche that can take a beating.”
Mastering the fencing psyche is perhaps the hardest of all skills. In the World Championships, the favorites fall one after the other: Pizzo, Heinzer, Novosjolov, Park Kyoungdoo, and Fichera have all been eliminated long before the quarter finals. Some of them are world- and Olympic champions. Others have won Grand Prix-events. But that’s fencing: a bad day and you’re out. The margins are tiny, it’s cruel, it’s merciless. A fencer must stand being humiliated over and over again, and then be able to evaluate his or her humiliation and turn into an advantage. Not all fifteen-year-olds have that ability, to say the least.
But precisely this differentness is also a huge asset. Getting kids to sign up for fencing classes is no problem, on the contrary, there’s often a waiting list to the clubs (like I said, swords = cool). But the deviant sport needs to attract more normal kids — not just pre-depressive thirteen-year-olds who happen to wander into a door and feel a funny smell.
On the piste in front of me a young Uzbek — Fayzulla Alimov — has marveled the audience and qualified among the final 16 in epee. He fences technically brilliant, manages to score three consecutive hits and equals the score to 14–14. When his opponent, the Ukrainian Roman Svichkar, scores the decisive hit and advances to the quarter final, Alimov screams out his frustration, slowly kneels, covers his eyes, and stifles a sob.
A scent of sweat, steel, leather, and unwashed clothes rises towards the stands: fencing.