Soviet breakup a boon for U.S. fencers

BEIJING — Just a guess: When it came time for that little meeting back in December 1991, Boris Yeltsin and the boys from some of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics didn’t sit around a remote hunting lodge and discuss abolishing the 74-year-old state in this order:

1. Confirm dismemberment and extinction of the USSR.

2. Restate the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, thus changing the world’s economic and political atmosphere.

3. Help the United States no longer stink at fencing.

But when the walls came crashing down, countless coaching experts in the field of sabers and foils and epees made their way to America’s shores and began opening fencing clubs across the landscape.

We have seen the results, and they are golden.

Those in fencing get it. They understand the sport will never in anyone’s lifetime reach a mainstream level of popularity in the States, that opportunity only exists once every four years for their best athletes to grab a minute spot of your attention before they retreat into the darkness of advance lunges and forward recoveries and counterattacks.

They have grown an organization from 8,000 to nearly 30,000, still minor by conventional standards. They still smile and bite their tongues when someone asks if the sport is what Zorro or Luke Skywalker did on the big screen. They still discover many of their younger athletes by accident, by some boy or girl looking for the gym and stumbling into a fencing class, by someone reading an article about the sport and passing it on.

"That’s OK, and we’ll deal with it within our little niche," said Jeffrey Bukantz, captain of the U.S. Olympic team. "We can grow and start kids younger. Because in large part to those coaches coming over from the former Soviet Union, we’ve gone from a third-world fencing country to a second world to a first world.

"But it’s still almost a miracle we can do this well against these other countries."

"This well" is a sweep of medals in women’s saber to open the 2008 Games. The U.S. hadn’t won a fencing gold medal in a century before Mariel Zagunis did so in Athens four years ago. Here, the 23-year-old repeated that result and was joined on the medals stand by teammates Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward.

If the U.S. success proves anything, it’s that being good at a sport not intimately linked to your country’s past really is about money. The more support you give athletes for rent and food and travel and equipment — things necessary to work less and compete more — the more you avoid embarrassment on a world stage when opportunity rolls around.

It also helps to have those with the most power in your corner, which fencing officially received once the U.S. Olympic Committee agreed to bypass the sport’s financially strapped federation and fund the athletes directly.

"We are competing against European countries that have been doing this for hundreds of years and who treat it as a profession," said Hannah Thompson, who competed in individual foil here and has team competition Saturday. "We need to be like that. I would love fencing to become more mainstream, but people at first get frustrated watching it. It can be difficult."

It’s not an easy sport to learn, and good luck figuring out in a short time how it is scored, although by the shrieks of those under protective headgear here this week, I’m guessing it’s a good thing if the light and buzzer goes off on your mask during competition. You need to be extremely fit and forget all those Hollywood scenes, because it’s nothing like the movies. The action is faster, more technical; the footwork is meticulous in its design. The red lights would carve Zorro to bits.

Name a child who never once picked up a stick and didn’t want to whack someone or something. This is where fencing has a fighting chance at continuing to grow. Team sports aren’t for everyone, and what better way to sell a kid on an individual activity than combat with swords? You win, you win. You lose, you lose. There is no conflict over playing time, no charges of favoritism by parents. Just pick up the foil and go at it.

"Maybe (these Olympics) will get us in Sports Illustrated and on television and more buzz than we have ever received, and then fencing will return to a relatively small sport in America," Bukantz said. "But more people are interested. That is obvious by our numbers. By accident, we will continue to get good fencers and move forward."

They get it.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or

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