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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.