Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Cross the fence and expose yourself to a new sporting world

I have never met Singapore fencer Amita Berthier yet she's already giving me an education. Because of her I am flicking through Shakespeare's plays, diving into fencing glossaries and reluctantly accepting that the greatest fencers ever were not French guys with flashy capes and sharp dialogues called Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan. The Musketeers were stylish but unlike Berthier had no world ranking.

Most of us have never been to a fencing hall but we know the sport from the cinema hall. There have been over 20 films based on Alexandre Dumas' novel, The Three Musketeers, leading entire generations of bored kids into duelling for their snotty honour by picking up their grandfather's walking stick and making uncultured lunges. If we could find dad's old eyeshades, we'd cut two holes in them and turn into imprecise Zorros.

Fencing had manners (fencers still salute each other before and after a bout), it was cool, and if we got hurt we could always quote William Shakespeare, who wrote in the Merry Wives of Windsor: "I bruised my shin the other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence."

Berthier is not a master, but she is world No. 2 in the junior fencing rankings and a sharp talent. Her journey is only commencing, but if we want to tag along, and we should, we had better go to fencing class.

Forget the Musketeers and Shakespeare, we need a serious education, where we can tell foil from epee and ceding parry from a circular one. Because the finest compliment we can give an athlete is to understand the nuance of their art. The more literate we are about a sport the better we can engage in the action and appreciate a skill.

Next week I am going to buy a fencing manual. This week I learnt that a sculpture of men with swords in competition was found in an Egyptian temple built in 1190 BC and that Olympic women fencing champions in the 1950s to 60s included a dental surgeon, a deaf factory worker and a music teacher.

American Shaun White executing a move in the half-pipe final at Phoenix Snow Park on his way to a third Winter Olympics gold medal.
American Shaun White executing a move in the half-pipe final at Phoenix Snow Park on his way to a third Winter Olympics gold medal. PHOTO: REUTERS

I also drifted through a glossary which left me grinning and bewildered. Partially because "assault" for fencers can also mean "friendly combat" without "officially taking into account the score". Just for the record, the word for fencing in French is "escrime".

Young Summer athletes like Berthier, and speed-skater Cheyenne Goh and her Winter tribe, are doing us a favour. They are reminding us that there is a sporting life beyond football and tennis, basketball and F1, and if we can detach ourselves briefly from our everyday religions we might actually be charmed by these idiosyncratic sects.

Because we'll learn they have outlandish tricks. Ronaldo's step-over is earthly magic, but snowboarder Shaun White's double-cork 1440 is four ridiculous revolutions high in the air. Because we'll discover they have a peculiar lingo. Tennis players slide but ice dancers "twizzle". Because we'll find they produce chilled-out quotes. Said snowboarder Emily Arthur after she landed on her face and emerged shaken with a bloody nose: "I'm good and I'm alive."

Come, see our world, these athletes say, and if you truly love sport, you'll go. Even if it's to curling, which a colleague noted was the place "where lawn bowls meets carrom meets sweeping". Now she's organising a curling day and to slide on one knee with the concentration of a genuflecting priest while pushing a granite stone has suddenly become an irresistible idea.

The more disciplines we investigate, the better we understand sport as a whole. The further we adventure into different arenas, the more clearly we see the dazzling diversity of skills. We think badminton players manipulate their instruments at a ferocious, coordinated speed till we watch fencers at urgent work.

We presume fast and feinting footballers offer a pure exhibition in balance till we see leaning skiers perched on the blurry edge of disaster. We believe long-distance runners offer a rare tactical tension till we witness short track skaters lead and retreat and produce sharp strategy at slippery speed.

Young Summer athletes like (fencer Amita) Berthier, and speed skater Cheyenne Goh and her Winter tribe, are doing us a favour. They are reminding us there is a sporting life beyond football and tennis, basketball and F1, and if we can detach ourselves briefly from our everyday religions we might actually be charmed by these idiosyncratic sects.

When we care to turn our attention away from mainstream sport and look beyond, we recognise that grit is a widely-spoken language, that talent is found in helmeted drivers but also masked fencers, and that the craft of sporting humans encompasses a fascinating spectrum.

Their differences enrich us and their similarities make us smile. Piste, for instance, is a "ski run of compacted snow". But it is also, in a lovely coincidence, the strip on which fencers compete.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'Cross the fence and expose yourself to a new sporting world'. Print Edition | Subscribe