Who Was Vladimir Smirnov and How Did He Make My Child Safer?

Based on the title to this article, you may think that Vladimir Smirnov is the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, head of the President’s Council on Fitness, or Surgeon General of the United States. No.  So who was Vladimir Smirnov and what does he have to do with the safety of my child when he fences?

Vladimir Simonov was a Russian fencer who competed at the 1982 World Championships in Rome.  Tragically, the foil blade of West Germany’s Matthias Behr broke and penetrated the mask of Smirnov resulting in a fatal head puncture wound.  Smirnov was kept on life support until the final touch of the final bout of the championships. The shock waves this one sport’s related death sent through the fencing community resulted in “maraging steel blades (instead of the weaker carbon steel ones of the day), kevlar (or other ballistic nylon) in the uniforms, and masks two to three times stronger than the one he wore, and other safety rules.” See Vladimir Viktorovich Smirnov, Wikipedia.org.  The reaction to this single death by the fencing community, through the changes of its safety standards, shows why modern sport fencing has the right to call itself one of the safest sports in the world.

As a parent, you may think that I’m a little crazy to claim that a sport like fencing can call itself safe just because it made improvements after a fencer’s death.  At this point you may be heading for the door to put your child in a much safer sport that doesn’t claim to be “safe” after someone actually died from competing.  But before you run out and sign your child up for the football team, consider this.  Between 1931 and 2007, there have been 1,689 fatalities as a result of all organized football in the United States.  See Meg Lanchantin, “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research Data,” National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, University of North Carolina.  And in case you’re tempted to think that these fatalities occurred before modern equipment was invented, consider that 9 of those 1,689 reported fatalities were for high school students in one year alone, 2007.  Compare these statistics with fencing.  For roughly the same period (1937 through 1994) only 7 fencing fatalities have occurred in the whole world. Yes, that’s for all ages of fencers from every country for more than 50 years and it’s less than the amount of American high school football students for 1 year. All the fencing fatalities were men and all were of world class fencers.  See D. Caine, C. Caine, K. Lindner (eds.), Epidemiology of Sports Injuries, Chapter 12, “Fencing.”  Further, there has never been a sport fencing fatality in the history of fencing in the United States. Fencing also has fewer injuries than participants in noncontact sports including baseball and softball.

Peter Harmer, Ph.D., Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, summarized the results of his several year study of sports injury for almost 80,000 male and female fencers in the Spring, 2008, American Fencer column “Sports Medicine Q&A.” Harmer stated, “[O]f all ages and skill levels, the rate of time-loss injury was 0.3 per 1,000 athlete-exposures (AE).”  At this point, you may say, “So what does that mean?”  Harmer continues, “[T]o put the rate for fencing into perspective, according to the High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System for 2005-06, the rate of time-loss injury in soccer was 14 times greater in high-school soccer players compared to a comparable age group/skill level of fencers and 10 times greater in basketball.” The article also points out that fencing had a 6 times LOWER rate of time-loss injury than even sports that otherwise had the lowest rates, “boys’ baseball (1.77 per 1,000 AE) and girls’ softball (1.78 per 1,000 AE).”  Further, the article points out that the difference is even greater for college athletes with “the rate in soccer being 50 times greater and 31 times greater in basketball than for comparable age/skill level fencers.” For me, the most significant portion of this article was Harmer’s indication of the type of injuries.  He points out, “[T]he majority of time-loss injuries were sprains (25.5 percent) and strains (26.1 percent), and approximately 60 percent of all of the fencing time-loss injuries were in the lower extremities.”  Although I realize no physical activity is totally “safe,” my children are participating in a sport where they do not have a significant risk of experiencing anything more than a sprain or strain. The research seems to support this no matter what my wife may think when my youngest, an epeeist, comes home with many bruises on his body after practice.

Considering all the activities that could require a trip to the emergency room if my children get injured, fencing is the activity I worry about the least.  U. S. News & World Report, in its April 8, 2002 issue, cited that every year American hospital emergency rooms treat more than 2.6 million kids for sports related injuries.  Of those young people treated, the top sports are the following:

Among children ages 5 to 14 years, the top sports injuries annually are: bicycling, 336,250; basketball, 193,400; football, 185,740; baseball and softball, 117,250; and soccer, 85,430. The number of other sports injuries include skateboarding, 49,930; hockey, 25,400; and gymnastics, 26,950.

Among young people ages 15 to 24 years, the top sports injuries are: basketball, 277,000; football, 171,290; bicycling, 95,720; baseball and softball, 88,340; and soccer, 68,790, according to the article. Other sports injuries included general exercising, 38,560; snowboarding, 29,700; hockey, 28,070; and skateboarding, 27,470.

Lord, Mary. “Dangerous Games: Sports Injuries among Children.” U.S. News & World Report (April 8, 2002): 44. For parents, it is an unspoken truth, we want our children to reap all the benefits of athletic activities and begrudgingly accept that they may get injured while engaging in the activity. It is somewhat reassuring that at least one of the sports my children like is not likely to cause a trip to the emergency room.

I always like the look on the new parents’ faces when Coach Julia jokes that it’s safer to fence with her than it is to play chess with her (the punch line is that if she loses she is likely to hit you in the head with the chess board).  So, the next time you hear Coach Julia telling of the health risks of playing her in chess (at least if you don’t wear a fencing mask when playing chess with her), you’ll know exactly what she means.

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