An Exhilarating Fight to the Death

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.

Cesar I. Martins from Jundiai, Brazil, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Italian sabre team at 1908 Olympics. Unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Thadius856, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Gold Medal Throw Down with a Monk

Olympic spirit has infected my home like a bad case of the flu. I like the Olympics. I’ve enjoyed watching US snowboarders own it, and the figure skating is quite lovely, but my case is pretty light. My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat delirious. The man is obsessed. If the Olympic Games came around more frequently than every two years, it would definitely be time to stage an intervention.

This same guy, who ordinarily couldn’t care less about the world stage of biathlon or wouldn’t devote a moment’s thought to the subtleties of bobsledding technique, has transformed into an expert on all things international sports.

Okay, it does look kind of fun. photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit IMG_1787 via photopin (license)

Nowhere is his illness more apparent than in his newfound (and likely short lived) dedication to the sport of curling. If we can assume the DJ on my preferred morning radio station got her information from a reliable source and that I heard correctly (both pretty big assumptions), then curling is currently the third most popular winter Olympic sport amongst the American viewing public.

Why not? It’s got slippery ice and heavy rocks and some very enthusiastic sweeping, everything a sport needs I should think. It has the nail-biting moments of tension that beg for otherwise responsible sports enthusiasts to stay up late even though they have to be at work the next morning.

hair curlers
Prior to 1998, the only thing that came to mind for most of us when someone mentioned curling. Image courtesy of oga_red, via Pixabay

The sport is loud, too, sometimes called the “roaring game” because of the unique rumble of stone scraping against ice or possibly because of the crazy fanboy shouting coming from my living room.

Some of the interest in Olympic curling may simply be because it’s a relative newcomer to the Games, only included since 1998. Sort of. The sport actually made its Olympic debut with the first Winter Games in 1924, but was then downgraded to an exhibition sport because it lacked an international organization necessary to meet the requirements of the IOC.

Really, despite its recent emergence in the consciousness of Olympic fanatics, curling is an older sport than even its most dedicated historians (and yes, it has some) are willing to speculate. There’s disagreement about whether curling is originally Dutch or Scottish in origin, but the earliest written evidence of the sport, or something like it, comes from Scotland in the form of a legal record book from the 16th century covering the goings on of Paisley Abbey.

Scholars discovered the book in 1976 and quickly turned it over to be examined by curling historian David Smith, who is the kind of dedicated historian that might argue with you about the origin of the sport and would win because, let’s face it, you’d probably be out of your depth.

Pieter Bruegel Winter Landscape
One of the earliest instances of curling caught on canvas, Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap By Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Smith translated the passage of interest from Latin, he found that it described, ever so briefly, a practice run of Brother John Sclater who slid three stones to roar across the ice and felt fairly satisfied he was ready to meet the challenge he’d previously issued to Gavin Hamilton, the new lay governor of the Abbey.

Because the record of the anticipated match appears in Latin legalese, scholars point out that this most likely wasn’t a friendly contest. Rather it’s an example of how an angry 16th century monk issues a throw down. There’s no record of which man won, suggesting that the notary was rooting for the other guy.

I bet it broke his heart to see his favorite curler miss the mark. He’d probably stayed up late to watch the match, biting his nails as the stones roared against the ice and the competitors shouted and swept. He probably had to head to the office bright and early the next morning where he’d put in a full day filling books with Latin legalese. But he didn’t care because he’d caught the fever.

Na na na nana na na. Nana na na…

We have a bad (or awesome) case of Olympic fever at our house this week. It’s not a terrible bug to have except for the fatigue. The late nights are definitely starting to wear on me, but it’s only a couple weeks every four years. And when I’m faced with the decision to either go to bed or to watch one more gymnastics apparatus or swim race, well, the choice is obvious.

The swimming is by far the hardest for me to turn off because I’ve always been a swimmer myself. I like to think I just missed qualifying for the US team (by 15 to 20 years and at least 10,000 hours in the pool). Okay so my strokes are inefficient (just means I work harder and burn more calories, right?) and my flip turns would make Rowdy Gaines guffaw, but still, I have always enjoyed my time in the pool.

As a teenager and into my early twenties while working at summer camps, I kept up my lifeguarding certification, completing the entire American Red Cross course twice as well as participating in refresher courses and in-service trainings. So even though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t out-swim Missy Franklin, if she were to cramp up in the water and need assistance, I could probably rescue her (and if she panicked and tried to drown me, I could totally break her nose and pull us both to safety. Thank you, Red Cross!)

And if the Olympics ever included an event in which athletes had to swim with their head out of the water supporting 150 pounds of dead weight on a large red buoy through the water and then up and over a rescue board, perhaps I could have been a contender. Alas, the Olympic Games have never included such a competition.

Or so I thought. But then what is a practical historian to do when she’s awake in the middle of the night in between events, waiting for the commentators to complete their super-informative interviews in which they ask hard-hitting questions like: “So, do you like Justin Bieber?” The answer to that question is that she Googles eliminated Olympic sports (as for the Bieber question, shockingly, I don’t hate him).

It turns out the 1900 Paris games featured a 200 m obstacle swimming event. True it included neither large red buoys nor rescue boards, but had it occurred 100 years later under the day’s official Red Cross guidelines, I’ve no doubt it would have. During the race, male swimmers (women didn’t compete in Olympic swimming events until 1912 because it’s hard to swim fast in an ankle length dress) climbed over a pole, over a row of boats, and under a second row of boats all while contending with the current of the River Seine. Gold was claimed by (probably not surprisingly) Australian swimmer Frederick Lane. I’m not sure why the event was discontinued after its brilliant debut. Maybe it just wasn’t Olympic-y enough.

And though the event never appeared in the games again (lucky for Lane who forever remains the Olympic record holder), a similar event does continue on the worldwide stage. Resurrected in 1955 again in Paris (though not in the Seine), a similar competitive event was organized by the Fédération Internationale de Sauvetage Aquatique or FIS (originally founded in 1910 with 18 member nations dedicated to water safety and rescue). The event, designed to encourage and celebrate the improvement of aquatic lifesaving skills, continued (somewhat sporadically) in pools throughout the world, until the organization merged with the World Life Saving organization (WLS), which focused largely on ocean and beach safety. In 1993, the International Life Saving Federation (ILSF) formed from the merger and the Lifesaving World Championship was born.

The event now occurs regularly every two years and one source I found claims that the ILSF supports the only worldwide athletic competition that truly serve a humanitarian purpose. That’s pretty noble, but I’m not sure it’s really true. But to defend my argument I’m afraid I’ll have to reference The Beatles.

You see I recently got into some small bit of trouble on Facebook by complaining about the inclusion of Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” performance at the opening ceremonies in London. I should stress that I have nothing against Paul McCartney or The Beatles. I appreciate their many contributions to the world of music (I mean they’re no Bieber or anything, but folks seem to like their music well enough) and I sing along to most of their collection just like everyone else. I just happen to hate that one song in particular because it doesn’t end definitively and so it sticks in my head. Badly. For days (or even weeks) at a time.

Seriously, I am only prolonging the agony by writing about it, but it’s worth mentioning because in the midst of the (mostly) friendly FB discussion/argument, I asked what the theme of the song had to do with the Olympic Games anyway. My brilliant (and occasionally snarky) niece replied: “In a world that lives in the midst of constant struggle and conflict, the Olympics serves as an opportunity to lay all of that aside and to come together through sport, thus it ‘take[s] a sad song and make[s] it better’” Okay, I can’t (or won’t because really it will only further drag out the incessant na na na’s in my head) argue with that. But then through that lens, Olympic competition sounds pretty humanitarian, doesn’t it?

So maybe 200 m obstacle swimming is pretty Olympic-y after all. I know I’d stay up to watch it.