The Olympics: Sport for the Rest of the World

We started planning to go to the London Olympics over one year before it started. Each country is given a certain amount of tickets for each event and you enter a lottery to see if you are lucky enough to get tickets for your event(s). You only know a few months before the Olympics start whether you got tickets, which makes your travel plans hard not to do until the eleventh hour. So, when we entered the lottery for the Men’s Individual Sabre medal finals, I thought only hardcore fans of fencing would be my other spectator lottery competitors. Well, we spent several hundred dollars on the tickets we were lucky enough to win the opportunity to buy. We even had a chance to buy Épée finals tickets but passed on those because of the expense. We were set to go to our first (and for me probably my last in my lifetime) Olympics. Best of all I thought my family, especially my kids, would be going to the pinnacle of all fencing tournaments with other fencing enamored fans. My expectations were shattered when we arrived at our London hotel and struck up a conversation with a nice gentleman from Denmark.

We all stopped at the hotel bar and were watching the Olympic archery tournament on the bar’s big screen television. The only other person in the room was a slightly fatigued gentleman who had just arrived from Denmark. Aside from watching Robin Hood movies, I had never seen an archery competition and my kids, who have done archery, were explaining it to me. The man from Denmark overheard us and told us what had happened so far in the tournament. So, the conversation came around to why he was visiting London and of course it was to see the Olympics. He said he even had tickets to one of the archery events. Thinking he must be a lifelong fan, I asked him about the countries that were most likely to do well in archery. I became speechless when he told me he too knew nothing about archery. After telling him that we only had tickets to one event, he rattled off several events from archery to volleyball for which he had tickets. Except for “football” (that’s “soccer” to Americans), he stated he had never seen the other sports events or knew anything about the competitors. Well, I thought surely he cannot be the typical Olympic spectator.

The night of the sabre competition, I found I, not the man from Denmark, was not the typical spectator. As expected the United States’ sabrists did not make it into the semifinals although Daryl Homer did place sixth and Tim Morehouse did place eighth by making it into the quarterfinals. As we expected, Russia and Italy were in the semifinals with Romania and Hungary. It was this last country that caused me to find out about the nice retired lady from Florida. She was seated in front of me and revealed to me how atypical my family and I were at this event.

The woman from Florida showed me a copy of a document that showed her uncle had won the Olympic gold medal for Hungary in 1904, in sabre. Surely, I must be seated behind one of fencing’s aristocracy! I asked her how long had she fenced and was surprised by her answer. She knew nothing about fencing except for what she learned from watching Mariel Zagunis’ fencing for beginner’s You Tube videos. So, my kids and I briefly explained some of the things to watch for, just before the pre-bouts’ video came on that explained the rules of sabre fencing. This was getting surreal! I just could not imagine someone spending so much time, effort, and money to watch a sport they didn’t even know the rules to. I have never been to the Super Bowl or a World Cup soccer game but I am pretty sure they do not have a two minute video of rules of the game before it begins. But the final proof that I was attending a fencing tournament for everyone but fencing fans was to come upon my exiting the Excel stadium.

Upon exiting the fencing arena, every fencing spectator was sent in a great stream of people to exit the far doors of the arena. In the middle of this stream of humanity a single person is making her way in the opposite direction, like a proverbial salmon swimming upstream. Besides my family, no one noticed who this is. Not one of the crush of fencing fans. Not one person asks for her autograph. Not one person asks for a picture with her. Not one person, not even the Florida woman who watched her videos, said, “Aren’t you the two time Olympic gold medalist, several time world champion, woman sabrist, Mariel Zagunis?” I wonder if David Beckham would have been that unnoticed in that crowd.

Having gone to what is the pinnacle tournament for any fencer to compete in, I realized that the Olympics are for the spectators who have never seen fencing. It is definitely unlike any fencing tournament I have ever been to, where I am surrounded by fencing aficionados. Instead, it is perhaps the only tournament where the best fencers compete for the public whose only connection is that they may be from, or were from, or may just like, the competitor’s country.

Reflecting on this, I have finally come to realize why some fencers (well, it is probably more the fencer’s parents) that say the Arnold is not a “true” fencing competition. This always made me scratch my head in wonder because it always has some of the best fencers competing in the same way as any other competition. The fencers receive ratings and get medals just like any other competition (although I believe the Arnold medals are better). Maybe what they are thinking is that because someone other than just fencers are watching that it is somehow just a fencing exhibition for the public. Instead the Arnold, like the Olympics, is a tournament that happens to expose our sport to people who otherwise would not spend the time, effort, or money to watch a fencing tournament. Well, perhaps they will change their mind if they ever get to experience the Olympics because fencing truly is sport for the rest of the world.

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