Why is fencing such an exclusive sport

Overview of the fencing tournament. Pic: Niall Concannon

Bolton Arena hosted the Manchester Cadet International Fencing Tournament recently, but for many people, fencing just isn’t accessible.

Junior Fencers came from all over the world to compete against each other in the tournament.

There was representation from 30 different countries competing, many from within Europe but others from Asia, Africa and America. The tournament allows Under-17 fencers to gain ranking points without the necessity of fencing in senior competitions.

However, unlike many of our sports here in the UK, there is no funding available while competing for national teams.

Fergal McGillian-Moore, the trainer for two competitors of the tournament, explained the lack of funding they have received. He said: “Fencing is not a heavily marketed spectator sport so there is not a lot of sponsorship available.

“Sponsorship from national sport agencies is also hard to come by because it is often focused on more mainstream sports.”

Fergal then went on to explain the cost implications of playing the sport. He said, “Fencing is an expensive sport from many aspects. It takes years of dedicated training and coaching to master the skills and club membership is significant.

“Equipment is also an ongoing cost. Thankfully, most of the equipment lasts pretty well or can be repaired. However, growing kids and wear and tear means that there is always a demand for new fencing shoes, jacket and pants.

“Travel is also a significant cost. We have fly away events almost twice a month now as part of the Irish team as well as competing in the US.”

Jake, who placed 24th out of 170 in the men’s foil (a type of fencing), told me about the skills required involved in fencing. He said, “The key skills needed for fencing are patience, good reflexes, and fast thinking.

“As everything I do while fencing is in the moment, I have to adjust and plan very quickly or else I’ll lose.”

The skill  level involved in fencing requires a lot of training, and Jake, who trains for two or three hours, three times a week, talked about the tough schedule of his training regime: “Because of the intense training levels that is required of fencing, I don’t have the time to find a part-time job, and I’m often behind on homework and school work.

“The amount of travelling has also hindered my school work,” he admitted.

Jake competing in the tournament. Pic: Niall Concannon

Jake, who was born and lives just outside of New York, represented Ireland at the competition. He explained why: “I chose to represent Ireland as my family is from there and I take pride in being able to represent the country.

“As Ireland has a much smaller population than America, it was also easier to be able to get on to the team.”

Jake who was selected earlier this year to compete in fencing representing Ireland, needed to meet a certain criteria in European competitions in order to qualify for the end of season European and World Championship teams.

Fencing in Bolton was one of the tournaments that they could get to and try to meet the championship criteria.

However, the good news for females is that there is no gender inequality in the sport. Katie, who placed 25th out of 148 in the women’s foil, told me about the differences, or rather the lack of differences, in men’s and women’s fencing. She said: “When talking about foil the rules are the same for both females and males.

“During tournaments there is a good mix between male and female competitors. In certain tournaments there are mixed events at which male and female fence off against each other, but in general females’ fence against females.”

Jake and Katie’s trainer, Fergal, went on to describe how the costs can make the sport quite exclusive: “Unfortunately it is exclusive. All of the costs above make it difficult for many people to afford. Some countries have strong pedigrees in fencing and are able to sustain large clubs but often, the small quantity of participants and speciality skills and equipment required make it unavoidably costly,” he said.

“It also stays exclusive because it doesn’t have mainstream visibility. You won’t see children playing ‘fencing’ with their friends in the same way as you might see them playing football or basketball. It’s a shame because it’s a very safe sport with relatively few injuries that people can continue participating in through their adult life.”

Fergal hopes that for Jake and Katie, their next step is to win medals at an international tournament as well as qualifying for the Irish world championship teams, but for many of us, fencing is just inaccessible.