The Decline of French Fencing… PDF Stampa E-mail
Domenica 21 Aprile 2013 12:45 | Scritto da redazione web
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... as seen by an Italian

By Maestro Giancarlo Toràn

decadence-successAt the last Olympics in London, French fencing did no twin any medal—a worrisome débacle.

When at the Budapest World Championships in 1959 Italy earned a single bronze medal (Giuseppe Delfino came to the rescue with his épée), the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) put the Italian Fencing Federation (FIS) in receivership, and a period of furious controversy ensued.

The two situations are not comparable for several reasons, but the French Bérézina of today appears to be more ominous than the Italian Caporetto of yesterday (to maintain the military history analogy). Now, as it happened then, athletes and fans are asking questions. How could anything like this happen? What should be done to regain the lost ground?

I do not presume to know the causes, the people, and the environment in which all this came to be. I just remember when I met the famous Christian d’Oriola many years ago. I still recall his facial expression when it became clear, at the end of a now forgotten World Cup competition that his Team France—I believe for the first time ever—did not qualify in foil for the Olympics. For our transalpine cousins, who share with us Italians the glory of an ancient, extremely rich tradition in winning medals, this was high drama. And I believe that what happened in London 2012 is also seen as a tragedy.

Yet, maybe I’m wrong and maybe I’m not, I dare put forward some hypotheses—once again going back to my personal memories—as a starting point of a virtual discussion.

I decided to pursue the career of Maestro di scherma after a short but intense period as an amateur competitor. I participated in many training and continuous education courses and seminars in those early years. These courses were offered by the Italian Federation and run by Maestri Ugo Pignotti and Giorgio Pessina, both strict and jealous custodians and guardians of the ancient Italian fencing tradition, which for the former descended from the techniques of Roberto Raggetti and the Nadis, for the latter from the Military Masters School born with Masaniello Parise. Illustrious names no doubt, but they represented a tradition that was getting often bruised on international strips in those difficult years for (Italian) fencing. We are talking here second half of the seventies.

The difference between fencing one could see on the strip, and fencing we were taught, was already obvious. Some, I being one of them, dared asking difficult questions that put our teachers on the spot. For me it was not enough to know how to do it. I wanted also to know why. But the answers were not forthcoming.

When one could no longer avoid an answer, it was more like, “When you’ll have formed the students I did, then you’ll understand!” This is how Giorgio Pessina replied when I asked him why the “the invitation or engagement in fourth” (invito or legamento di quarta) uncovered the outside torso and not the flank also. Ugo Pignotti, whom I liked better, saw me one day giving a lesson to the junior national team. I was moving up and down the strip—something everybody does today but was not at all common then. He told me, raising his voice in front of my students, “Had I seen you doing so in Naples during the exams [to become Maestro] I would have flunked you!”

It is easy to imagine that in such an environment one was not encouraged to try new approaches, to innovate. And yet, fencing was changing, actually had already changed and the new things were charging upon us—electric foil, target areas like the flank and back which previously had been seldom used, angled hits, running on the strip… followed then by flicks, closing thrusts in opposition (chiusure), new contact and de-blocking times. This was a revolution that later spread to saber, and in a lesser way to épée.

Italy knew how to overcome the crisis, knew how to adapt. However, the large part of the merit for the new direction and innovations, which today are copied the world over, goes to few Maestri. The forerunners were Livio Di Rosa and Ezio Triccoli. As it happened, both had experience that they developed abroad, almost in isolation, away from the (national) boundaries that limited all the others. At the beginning, it wasn’t easy for them, because the establishment and the repositories of the official Italian fencing verbum ostracized these two innovators any way they could.

I remember well meetings with Di Rosa, when the older Maestri instead of trying to understand and steal his “secrets,” just criticized him on the basis of a Règlement and treatises which by then were already obsolete. But results spoke loud and clear and the new theories, if we can call them so, prevailed in the end on the strip if not on paper.

The gap between the classic theories (and the Règlement Internationale) and modern fencing was a case in point. The RI was already born old a century ago, and the changes imposed or accepted because fencing had evolved (technique, materials, signaling equipment, interaction with TV, etc.) have rendered the RI unenforceable in the vital area which deals with the guiding principles of weapons subject to the convention. This may also be the main reason why we don’t see new fencing treatises, but this opens another topic we may consider another time.

Yet, in spite of the ever greater and obvious dichotomy between the RI and the enforced rules on the field, Italian fencing prospers, while French fencing appears to suffer and be in decline. Why?

France and Italy are both rich fencing nations—measured in terms of practitioners, national culture, and economic subsidies. But Italy, which did also go through some dark periods, has found a way to resurface and return at the top. France seems to have a much harder time. Personally, I wish for France to find the way to a quick comeback. I say this as an Italian, soaked in the traditional historic fencing rivalry between our two countries.

When I read the arguments and debates on this subject on Escrime-Info, one point strikes me first. Many French debaters talk about the French School (école française) and are not shy to proclaim their nostalgia for the time that was… which will never come back. But even more striking for me is that the entire problem for the French seems to rest upon the destiny of foil.

From my prospective, France was strong also, and maybe stronger, in the other weapons. Leaving London 2012 aside, in the three prior Olympics France brought home 15 fencing medals: only two in foil, five in saber, and thirteen in épée. Why then focus the analysis only on foil?

My impression is that French fencing is much more rigidly structured and better organized than Italian fencing, and that France has cultivated for a long time, much longer than in Italy, the idea that the starting point for all fencing must be foil. I derive this impression from the little I know about France’s sport organization, from their textbooks, technical files, goals, checklists, i.e., the entire setup and teaching paraphernalia that make a school a School. This has the advantage to be able to share the unadulterated Knowledge. But it also has the disadvantage of being rather inflexible, not at all open to new ideas. And that’s the crucial point.

Let me put on the hat of a naturalist and evolutionist [from my studies and early training as a natural scientist]. In the daily battle for survival of the fittest (be it individuals, groups, or Schools) set rules and long experience/tradition are very important and very useful when the environment is stable—they represent the essence distilled from long periods of time, which sometime include several generations, when all sort of experiments were tried, and what in the end remains/survives and is shared represents usually the most efficient solution.

However, when the environment changes abruptly, in the ensuing turbulence new behaviors, new solutions emerge, and all of a sudden the natural selection becomes active again.

History of the world is full of these “leaps,” caused sometimes by an external and unpredictable traumatic event. Think for example as an extreme case about the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the growth of the mammals, due in all probability to the abrupt climate change caused by the impact of a large asteroid on Earth.

Mutatis mutandis, we could say that electric scoring of touches was an asteroid of the fencing world, followed by a swarm of smaller events represented by new rules, sometimes necessary, other times less so.

The upheaval and turmoil of the conditions and of the rules helped the emerging of a new behavior on the strip and a different way of teaching fencing, producing systems (=Schools) which are more pliant and flexible. Italians, who are favored in all this because of their history of being dominated by foreigners and of being more divided, and more recently than others, have been able to adapt very quickly by rapidly finding new tactical solutions. French, if my analysis is correct, were less flexible, and today they pay the price.

And what about the others?

All others, some more, some less, did not carry on their shoulders the weight of such important fencing traditions, which at times can be overwhelming and stifling. They were therefore freer to change and consequently, when also other conditions occurred, they emerged. Among these important conditions I consider good Maestri, adequate economical support, a good basic training, life ethics that values taking responsibility and personal initiative.

We must also take into account the strong motivations young people have in less affluent societies which are governed by regimes that use victories in sport as a way to improve the regimes’ public image. For these young people sport represents a most important way to affirm themselves, and this more than justifies an extraordinary personal commitment. Furthermore, regular physical conditioning and education programs since early childhood offset any technical deficiencies [lack of a national School].

French and Italians fencers enjoy the benefit of the positive aspects of tradition—so many schools, so many elite athletes, the memory of recent glories which pushes them to regain the lost spots in the national team, and, last but not least, considerable and consistent [government] financial contributions and support.

A complete and thorough analysis of why things are they way they are in all countries must take into account this last factor [government support], something I’d like to know more about and in more detail and which correlates with the [national] Fencing Schools and their success.

Few emphasize the point that the traditional (national) fencing Schools were strictly military institutions, like in the case of the Masters School of Masaniello Parise. And it is not a question of wearing a military uniform, but a question of money.

No modern organization/association could afford such an onerous investment like that made in the past by the State. Just think about it: a very narrow selection after a national competition (between aspiring fencing coaches); the best selected are put together in barracks to work for years and years, every day, under the best Maestri, with guaranteed salary and benefits during their formation and assured employment after graduation.

Is it conceivable to put in place today such an organizational structure for new aspiring maestri, all civilians? How much would all this cost? Who would be willing to leave their day job for three or four years, moving to where the School is located, facing an uncertain future as far as their employment after graduation?

The concept of a Masters’ School today must be entirely rethought, and it takes a lot of courage and a lot of energy to make a profound and drastic change.

Italian Maestri (civilian) have enjoyed a relative freedom because they did not have to go through years of thorough teaching in a very structured system, and this has favored them a lot in the present environment. When I talk about a School, I mean a learning environment with a well-established curriculum, which today in Italy is reduced to the minimum. What we do not lack in Italy is the transfer of knowledge from Master teacher to Master’s pupil which takes place every day in many clubs.

Another important factor is the frequent and sometimes unscrupulous use of foreign coaches (in Italy) which have brought excitement and innovation, even though, as I mentioned above, the merits and major innovations can be attributed to the Italian Maestri—non military trained to boot, therefore less encumbered by restrictions and environmental conditioning than their older, military trained colleagues.

In conclusion, I wonder if the FIE will find the courage to work on an effective new Règlement making sure that written rules and their enforcement are the same. What we have now is a scandal that has been tolerated and accepted for years. This produces the current regulatory uncertainty and in the end forces everyone to adapt, to find new solutions or “getting by.” Apparently this is an “art” at which we Italians are especially gifted, l’arte di arrangiarsi, i.e., make the best out of a confused and totally messed up situation.




Philippe Boisse, “We restart with a new cycle”




Olympic and World Champion, individual and team épée, Dr. Philippe Boisse, MD, now a major actor in the new FFE leadership, is in charge of high performance (haut niveau) as FFE Vice President. He gave us the “state of the union” at the Under 20 World championships in Porec, and before the senior European and World championships.


Q: What’s the situation now at the beginning of April?

Philippe Boisse: “We are waiting for the appointment of the new DTN (National Technical Director to replace Eric Srecki) by the Ministry of Sport (upon recommendation of the FFE President). This is the result of the decision by the previous administration [Frédéric Pietruszka] to push the General Elective Assembly to March 16. True, everybody is working, but elite athletes and national coaches are sitting between two chairs. I’d say that we’ve started badly the first year of the Olympic preparation. We will visit with Isabelle Lamour (FFE newly elected President) INSEP on April 17th to reassure everyone and tell them how and how much we support them.”


Q: Has the analysis of the zero medals in London been done?

PB: “Curiously, it was done by the former President (Pietruszka) and DTN (Srecki), but they did not do it together. Which shows that there was no longer a link between elected officials, coaches, and athletes. Yet, we are a family and we must work all together. We must forget London and start all over a new cycle. I’m not worried about the quality of our fencers and our coaches. We will put in place the infrastructure to allow them optimum training. We’ll open our windows. It will no longer be the case that elite fencers, who do not train and reside at INSEP, would be prevented to be members of the national squad. And we will rely upon weapon commissions that are better structured/organized.”


Q: The junior world championships are going on in Porec. First of all, why France does not participate in the cadet portion of the championships? Second, we see Michel Salesse [former team mate of Boisse who won team Olympic gold (1980) and silver (1984) and team world championships 1982 and 1983] named team director.  Is this a hint?

PB: “We do not compete in cadets because it was not included in the budget nor was it part of the agreed goals of the former administration. Next year we’ll go. But we must also pay attention to the actual calendar as the European championships like the World championships are held during the school year. We cannot ask a young student to be absent from school twice for eight days. We’ll talk about this but maybe we’ll send one team to the Europeans and one to the Worlds.

Regarding Michel Salesse, his appointment depends on the future DTN. But we had to have someone in Porec. I’m sure that Michel will be very effective, since he is based at INSEP, working with the coaches, especially in increasing the training volume.

Similarly, I think that to bring some coherence, we must establish interconnections between men and women athletes in each weapon. Thus, I look favorably to having coordinators/trainers for each of the three weapons. Again though, this will be the decision of the DTN.”


Q: How do you see the situation of our senior fencers, weapon by weapon?

PB: “In WF, Boidin came up with a good mix between the more experienced (Maitrejean, Guyart, and Gebet) and the young ones (Blaze and Thibus). And it is working. We saw this in the individual and team results. Possibly this is the weapon that works best.

In MF, the leader Le Pechoux has had a bad season. There were personal problems especially in London. Let’s say that we must restore order and open up INSEP to the outside world.

In ME, we have had a brilliant team for seven years. The fact that in London there was no team competition was an upsetting situation. But in the end with Grumier, Robeiri, and Borel, we have high quality fencers, and young ones are coming up because we have good work that takes place at the club level.

In WE, obviously with the retirement of Flessel, even if she was training on her own [not at INSEP], it will cost us dearly. You must always have one who leads by example on the strip. Furthermore, Nisima took some time out, but there is also the rumor that she could come back for the World championships. We have some good young girls but they must learn to be consistent.

In MS we lived through a magnificent period with the Touya, Lopez, Pillet, Anstett, Sanson. It’s harder now even if we still have Pillet, Anstett, and Apithy. Many Maîtres do an excellent job with saber in their clubs. And saber is the first weapon to have started a national circuit dedicated to the Y-12-13. You have to start competitive bouting early, not just working on fencing technique.

In WS, Vergne, Perrus, and Mary have retired, and Stoltz will be out for at least six months because of her torn ligaments. But the junior team is world champion and two of them are already integrated with the seniors. We must let them ripen and especially not waste the nuggets!”



Translation/revision by  Gram  and  Gil Pezza


Scarica questo file (2013 Senior World Cup.pdf)2013 Senior World Cup[2013 Senior World Cup at midseason]321 Kb

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