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Updated: Jul 30
Though athletes on the competition field find themselves on opposing teams or striving against each other individually, their shared experiences build connections with each other. Sport offers us the chance to connect with one another in unique and different ways. In its best form, the structure of competition helps to build bridges between athletes of vastly different backgrounds.
Sport as Communication
Competing against an opponent creates a connection between both people. Though on opposite sides of the playing field, competition is something that the athletes create together. It’s not through verbal communication, but through a physical language of movement. The connection that comes within a fencing match can easily be likened to sign language or body language. Competition is remarkably similar to conversation. Two athletes (or teams of athletes) are talking to one another through the movement of their bodies and the exertion of their will as they make their way through the competition.
When learning a sport you are not only learning an athletic and rigorous pursuit that will help your physical body, you are also learning a whole new way to communicate and connect with other people. The movement language of sport is one that transcends everything else. Nonverbal communication rises above culture and language. It can bridge the barriers between people who would never have any way to interact with each other.
Sport done well strips away all of the things that divide people. Look for example two tennis players on a court. They communicate with one another without expectations or assumptions. Even if you’ve never played tennis before you can can see the pattern of communication that goes between two fencers during a game, a set, and a match. One player will say something with the ball across the net, and the other will answer. Sometimes there will be an extended conversation or there will be a pause. Sometimes these conversations are more animated, while others might be more reflective. Often different tones of communication can happen. What matters is that the two players are always going back and forth, irrespective of their backgrounds and what they bring with them. Those two players are connecting in a way that is impossible through any other means.
But whatever the particulars, sport is truly a unique form of communication, and through that a connection is established.
Sport and Cultural exchange
Sport is that it allows athletes from anywhere to communicate with other athletes, no matter what their spoken language might be. The Olympics are one example of this kind of cross cultural communication but there are others that take place all the time. Every week across the country, athletes get together for games and tournaments that bring together people from different backgrounds who would never have the opportunity to interact with each other. And once athletes start competing at higher levels, especially in the "nontraditional sports", there's an opportunity to interact with an even broader of array of people. Tournaments can bring traveling teams and individuals from across the country.
That opportunity to interact with people from all over the country is an important concept, because the United States isn't just one culture. People from Texas are very different culturally than people from the Pacific Northwest, who are very different culturally from people from the Midwest. And then you bring together the diversity that additional populations add (Black, Latinx, various immigrant groups and Native American), and there are so many different cultural realities to explore. Meeting with and competing against people from different backgrounds is one of the best ways to foster cultural sensitivity, tolerance, and understanding.
Fencing’s History of Cultural Exchange
Of course, at Cutting Edge Fencing, we focus on a particular sport - fencing, which has its own history of cultural exchange. With a rich history of hundreds of years, from the very outset there was a tradition of exchange with other cultures. Initially within Europe fencing culture spread across national borders as the early fencing masters were sought out by royal courts and military advisors. Eventually, fencing spread wider to other parts of the world where it then became a new foundation of cultural exchange.
Fencing was one of the original sports in the Olympics - and has been in every one since. The initial games in Athens of 1896 included nine sports – Athletics, Cycling, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Weightlifting, Wrestling, and Fencing. The purpose of the modern Olympic Games is to bring people together across the cultural divides that would otherwise keep them apart.
For fencers, it's important that our sport is part of the wider cultural exchange that is the Olympic Games and it is an important part of our legacy. The combat of the fencing piste strips away cultural differences. When a fencer steps up to the guard line, all they need to know is that it’s an opponent like any other. Part of this is that all fencers look basically the same once they’re in their uniform. This was incredibly evident at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 when sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first athlete from the United States to wear a hijab at the Olympic Games. Once she put on her fencing mask and uniform however, she became a fencer like any other, almost indistinguishable except for her country colors and name on the back. People from all over the United States and the world could watch her compete without any preconceived ideas about her. She was just an athlete.
The Structure of Competitive Fencing Promotes Cultural Exchange
Like in other sports fencers can communicate with one another through their movements, but the structure of the way the national and regional level circuits work to bring together a wide variety of people from all over the United States, and even all over the world. While the travel at first can be a bit daunting, it is also a powerful way that fencing competition allows fencers to break down cultural barriers. Competitive fencing allows for the opportunity to travel both regionally and nationally within a few years of dedicated practice with a good program - like at Cutting Edge Fencing.
And as fencers travel they start to make friends on the travel circuit. Many of our fencers have forged close friendships with people from different places through their love of the sport. Even though it was difficult to start up the initial conversation, sport gave them a place to start to talk to one another. Fencing tournaments happen all over the country and all over the world and provide an opportunity to travel and experience a different way of doing things. Even just the simple act of getting together with teammates for a meal after a competition in a new city can expose you to new kinds of experiences that you wouldn't have imagined could have such an impact on your point of view.
And it's worth noting that it’s not just fencers from within the United States that are on the regional and national circuits.. Since USA Fencing's regional and national events are open to anyone from all over the world, it’s not uncommon to connect with fellow competitors from all parts of the globe. Even regional events that Cutting Edge Fencing has helped run here in the DFW Metroplex have attracted competitors from a diverse array of countries including Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, China, Hong Kong, France, Venezuela, Germany, Brazil and more.
Common ground in the form of a shared sporting activity gives people something to build from. Also, good sportsmanship is baked into our competitive culture. The salute that we perform before and after every fencing match is a gesture of respect that is non-negotiable. When you step on the strip against someone with a meter of cold steel in your hand, the notion that they deserve support and respect no matter who they are or what their background is becomes an easy thing to accept.
Sport has the power to change lives for the better, no matter if we enter it as a young kid with no experience or an adult who is looking for a new hobby. Rivals made on the competition field can transform into lifelong friends. The culture of good sportsmanship fostered by positive coaches and teammates can change lives and the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures helps us grow more tolerant and accepting of differences. This is of course in addition to all of the benefits of physical and mental activity and healthy living that sport encourages.
Branch out today and start your journey! Find a place near you to get involved in a new sport!
These musings were partially inspired by this post on the Academy of Fencing Master's Blog.