Dom Joly: Time to get off the fence: sabres and epées possess real Olympian appeal

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The Independent Online

It is my first day at an Olympics. I leave the air-conditioned comfort of the "Green Zone" that is the Main Press Centre, armed with a list of all the events that are going on around Beijing. I want to see as many as possible. I stride purposefully out into the smog. About three minutes later, the heat has got to me. It's an all-enveloping humidity that leaves your clothes stuck fast to your body in seconds. It's so bad that it makes me start seriously considering wearing a Seventies-style sweatband round my head, as though this were normal.

I must have lost about a stone in sweat at the spectacular opening ceremony. It was only the remote possibility of a cameraman picking me out and beaming my image to four billion people that stopped me from stripping down to my pants. I did, at least, stick out the four and a half hours but today my plan is quickly abandoned. I must just get inside, somewhere with air conditioning, and fast. I spot a huge hall and dive in – I find myself in the fencing venue.

Now I'll come clean here – fencing was not on my original list. Back at school it was considered a touch homosexual to partake in the sport – don't know why; gay blade and all that; maybe the preponderance of tight white clothing? – and I've never really been interested in it. Not that I'd have the chance to be so, even if I was so inclined. I mean, where do you go to see a fencing competition? It's not exactly an impulse purchase, is it?

I find myself a table and several crates of the free water that is everywhere here. I begin to cool down and take in my surroundings. In front of me, on a raised blue dais, are four "strips" that surround a central, unused one. The women's sabre is already under way and four pairs of women, who look in no way homosexual, are sword-fighting. They are dressed in what look like rather clumpy, silver, heat-retardant outfits. The sport has tried to sex itself up a bit by losing the traditional wire-mesh mask that left you unable to see anybody's features. They now have curious, astronaut-type welder's masks that allow the TV cameras to see the fighter's eyes. It all looks a bit sci-fi and is quite effective, if not a tad ridiculous.

The competition is surprisingly exciting and I find myself hooked almost immediately. Under very theatrical lighting, the women slash and stab with gusto and much grunting as huge rows of green or red LEDs light up to indicate a hit. But after a while I realise that it's all much more complicated than I would have thought. I wish that I had done some research. Sadly, I am a lazy man who spent most of the flight out here from Toronto watching rubbish movies and staring down at the disappearing Arctic, trying to spot a polar bear on an iceberg.

Next to me is a large man wearing a tight USA tracksuit – he's screaming encouragement at one of the American girls. After a couple more decisions that seem to be the complete opposite of what I thought I'd seen, I pluck up my courage and ask him a couple of questions, like, "What the hell is going on?" and "Can you explain all the rules to me quickly and simply?" He turns out to be a coach for one of the USA's epée competitors and is more than happy to deal with my ignorance. He explains that it's all about who makes the first attack and that things can often only be decided by the judges using slow-motion replays. I feel a little better about not getting every nuance of the sport immediately. I ask him who are the favourites and he replies that the US have three of the top five in the world. I ask him if the UK are any good at this. He replies, diplomatically, that we might be better for 2012 but we're not really in it right now. I ask if the use of a flick knife is a sport. If so we are guaranteed at least one medal. He edges away from me, as he now realises that I am not a serious person.

The competition progresses down from a starting line-up of 64 fencers to 32 and then 16 and then ... hang on ... maths not great ... oh yes, eight. This all happens and I realise that I've been here for four hours and I'm loving it. The three Americans are all still in but there is very nearly an upset when a Tunisian girl loses to one of them by one point (it's first to 15), having defeated a well-respected French girl. The Tunisian is devastated but I can't help feeling that she has done well and must now be in with a chance of a job as minister for sport back home.

Once the semi-finals have been drawn (three Americans, one lonely Russian), there is a break for lunch and I head off to try and find somewhere that isn't a McDonald's and that takes anything apart from Visa – they are one of the sponsors and you can't use any other credit card on site. I have some very spicy tofu from a semi-street stall catering for the thousands of young volunteers – it's delicious. I'm starting to heat up again and the chillis aren't helping, so I rush back into the Fencing Hall for the completion of the competition. I'd always envisaged Olympic competitions lasting for days, so it's great to be able to watch one from start to finish.

The final bouts are held on the central raised dais and are very close. In the end it's an American whitewash, as predicted by my friend, who gives me a smug grin from his new vantage point. It's extraordinary to actually witness someone win a gold medal – something I've watched all my life on telly – and I feel very privileged. I also feel happy that fate brought me to fencing for my first event. It is a truly Olympian sport and deserves a lot more PR.

As the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fade away, I head off back into the furnace. I nearly nick one of the BacoFoil suits – they'd be very useful out here...

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