This past week saw the official opening of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, with some definite adjustments. There are no cheering crowds and the athletes arbitrarily wear masks when they don’t have the immediate need to breathe. Viewership in the US is way down, I’m sure partly because seeing empty stadiums is unsettling and partly because so many people have given up cable in favor of streaming services. It’s also difficult to hashtag a 2020 Olympic Games that is occurring in 2021. We’re probably all little discombobulated.
What I miss the most are the parents of the athletes, sitting in the stands wringing their hands, biting their nails, trying to watch and not watch at the same time while their son or daughter competes at the highest level in a sport to which they have dedicated so much time and energy for so many years. Instead, we’re shown occasional glimpses of them in the comfort of their living rooms half a world away, or gathered with family and friends for watch parties. It’s nice to see them, but it’s not quite the same.
There are two types of Olympic parent. The first is the one who is the former elite athlete themselves. This parent my even have been a coach to their young athlete at some point. They can semi-calmly answer knowledgeable questions about their son or daughter’s performance. The second kind of parent had no idea that their child might be the greatest handball player of all time, and when it all began, had no idea precisely how one played handball.
It’s this parent with whom I identify, because while the rest of the handful of Olympic watchers in the US was tuned into the primetime replay of the Opening Ceremony last Friday, I was instead watching men’s sabre fencing. This is the kind of event you have to watch live mostly in the middle of the night because it’s not gymnastics, swimming, sprinting, or beach volleyball. And it’s a sport that we had to watch, because for about three years now, my youngest son has been a fencer.
Despite the fact that fencing is one of the world’s oldest sports, as it developed alongside the need to learn how to fight and defend oneself with a sword, and despite the fact that it is one of only five events that has been part of every single occurrence of the Modern Olympic Games since they began in Athens in 1896, fencing remains a watch-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of sport around these parts.
And we did watch it in the middle of the night. The preliminaries began around 7 pm and the gold medal bout occurred around 7 am. In between was a lot of fencing, very little of which was understood by this mom.
It’s not that I don’t like the sport. It’s just that before my son started, the only thing I knew about fencing I had learned from The Princess Bride, which taught me that Bonetti’s defense might be fitting for rocky terrain, and that if one is to be satisfied with his bout, he should fence with his non-dominant hand unless forced to do otherwise because his opponent is better than he is. Neither of these pieces of information has so far proven useful in the slightest.
I have accumulated some knowledge over the last few years. For instance, there are three varieties of sport fencing. Each uses a distinct type of sword, set of rules, and method of scoring. Foil is the classic art of poking one’s opponent in the torso. Epee, according to my son, is the sword dancing of lawless hippies. And sabre is more or less an exhilarating fight to the death by stabbing or whacking.
Obviously, my son primarily fences sabre, which is the fastest moving of the three and is therefore the most difficult for an enthusiastic mom to spectate without making a fool of herself.
In case you’re not familiar with the sport, I’ll explain. Very basically, each fencer is attempting to score a “touch” against the other by being the first to make contact with an opponent from the waist up. This touch can be scored with either the stabby part of the sword or the cutting edge. That’s not so tricky. But if both fencers manage to achieve a touch, which seems to pretty much always happen, then the point goes to the fencer who has claim to the right of way, or in other words, the last fencer to have done something either offensive (like move forward without stopping or flinching) or defensive, like parry an opponent’s attack.
Right of way is determined by a judge, who is never swayed by the simultaneous outpouring of enthusiastic celebration by each of the fencers, as convinced the point belongs to him as a soccer player is that he has been gravely injured by light contact with another player. Except that sometimes the judge is swayed. But more often, they just call a simultaneous, no one gets the point, and the false celebrating ceases for the next 0.4 milliseconds that it takes to do it all over again.
I have been trying to figure it out. I really have, and I thought that maybe by watching sabre in the Olympics with commentary and slow-motion views, I might gain some super fencing-mom skill. Alas, until the finals, fencing events were only viewable on a four-way split screen with no commentary at all, except for the unintelligible utterances of my son and husband (who is much better at mimicking sports knowledge than I am) who said things like stop hit, mal-parry, or flunge.
So, I ended up doing what I always do. I cheered when my son did.
As far as learning how to cheer on the sport, the whole exercise was about as helpful as watching The Princess Bride. But that’s okay. He’s not in the Olympics yet. If he is someday, I’m sure I’ll have it all figured out by then. Or at least I’ll be the mom who is wringing my hands, biting my nails, and trying to both watch and not watch at the same time. Because everyone can understand that.