I’ve been an avid fencer since prep school. Back then I wore the whole get-up – the jacket, the mask, the socks, everything. Back then, everything went down on the long, thin mat. We fenced hooked up to all those wires that buzz and glow whenever the tip of the blade makes contact with your opponent. Now, with private fencing clubs so few and far between, my bouts are much more informal. Usually it consists of me and a friend getting hideously drunk and going at it with a couple of 19th-century epees I keep mounted in my study. We have a few rules, of course: try not to get the other guy in the eye or the testicles, and if he lands a good hit, do the honourable thing and admit it. Of course it’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it can’t but serve as a reminder of how tiny and marginalized the fencing community is.
Every four years, though, that changes. I look forward to the Olympics because, for a few hours, the whole planet shares my love for fencing. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the rules, or if they’ll slip back into indifference once the games are over. It’s just nice to think that, even for just a fleeting moment, my sport is the most important sport in the world.
That’s not the case this year. Of course you’ll always have your Olympic pessimists, whose favourite pastime is pointing out that, within twenty-four hours of the medal ceremony, everyone will forget rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized diving even exists. But that’s not the point. There are 28 Olympic sports, and if we all had to give a shit about every single one of them all the time in order to justify the Games, then there simply couldn’t be an Olympics at all.
The point is, rather, that each and every sport – from the manliest, like wrestling, to the girliest, like badminton – is absolutely enchanting when played by their finest practitioners. For some, like us fencers, it’s about the sport itself. To everyone else, it’s about the surreal, archaic artistry of a Swede and a North Korean fighting each other with swords. Who could begrudge anyone that pleasure?
But it’s not just the pessimists who are spoiling the Games this year, though. I suppose it was inevitable, but political correctness has now completely ruined the Olympics for me.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is America’s best female saberist. I was proud to see her representing my country in the Games. I was also, admittedly, quite tickled that she was a hijab-wearing Muslim of African extraction. It seemed to me a mark of the universality of this sport, which was born of Medieval European warfare and perfected by French aristocrats. But, instead of grabbing headlines for fencing, Ms Muhammed grabbed headlines for… Donald Trump.
‘I think his words are very dangerous,’ she said in a recent CNN interview. ‘When these types of comments are made, no one thinks about how they really affect people. I’m African American. I don’t have another home to go to. My family was born here. I was born here. I’ve grown up in Jersey. All my family’s from Jersey. It’s like, well, where do we go?’
It’s extremely difficult to quantify how few bothers I give about Ms Muhammed’s ignorant opinions. (When has Trump ever even hinted that he’d expel all Muslims from the United States?) I don’t care about her political views. I care about her fencing – which is the only reason anyone knows her name.
Olympic fencers do a great service to our sport by giving it its brief moment in the international spotlight. It’s impossible to say how many boys and girls take up the sport every four years after watching, mesmerized, their first bout between two warriors with unpronounceable names, their faces obscured by the flags of strange foreign lands. The media has a monomaniacal obsession with Trump, and we expect such nonsense from them. But Ms Muhammed didn’t have to indulge them. She could’ve modestly refused their lustful stares (that’s what the hijab represents, isn’t it?) and demanded she be respected, not as yet another Muslim with harsh words for The Donald, but as a fencer. She could’ve given glory to our sport. Instead she hogged it all for herself.
Now that The Daily Telegraph – once Britain’s most respected conservative newspaper – has published a listicle of ‘The most depressingly sexist moments of the Olympics (so far)’, I think I’m all done with the Games. This isn’t about sportsmanship anymore. It isn’t about our dysfunctional international family setting aside our squabbles for a few weeks and glorying in our race’s finest athletes. It’s just another stage for those squabbles – global and provincial – to play themselves out with maddening tedium.
If I wanted to hear about Donald Trump, I’d watch the news. If I wanted to hear about sexism, I’d go back to uni and do a master’s in gender studies. But I don’t. I want to see the world’s greatest fencers and, yes, its greatest rhythmic gymnasts and synchronized divers executing their magnificent craft. If that’s not what the Olympics are about anymore, you’ll forgive me, but I’m tuning out.