American Fencing Magazine
by Michel Alaux
One should realize that equating the results of our Nationals with the best possible team selection or as a system of merit is too simplistic a concept. It is like saying that graduating number one from high school will assure the student the number one place in college as well as in life, ignoring the fact that many successful men do not have a high school or college education. Naturally these extreme cases prove nothing except that success cannot be related to numbers alone, and that other human elements have to be taken into consideration when it comes either to life or to fencing competitions.
There is a need in our sport to define a program on a long range basis, if only to insure the continuity without which no result can be attained on a constant basis. If our aim on a national level is basically to promote the development of our sport, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, ranging from introducing fencing in every high school to the development of qualified coaches and the spreading of fencing clubs throughout the country, it is important that we look beyond our boundaries to test our progress and check on the efficiency of our efforts.
Basing our success on statistics alone will show a growing number of AFLA members amd a greater attendance at the Nationals. However, it will not attest to our growth in quality. One cannot help but witness that our fencers’ technique is not following the upward trend. This is a matter of concern even more for the AFLA than for the coaches if one wants to see a change in the results of our participation in international competitions. The results of the Nationals and the creation of a team are two separate matters.
The Nationals is a once-a-year event, open to everyone who is qualified. The individual as well as the team results are top in the country and self rewarding. However, its level of value is less than that of an international competition in which the top European fencers compete. Granted we do not have the same opportunities as the European. However, should we deny facts? Securing a place on a team is (or should be) the result of a four-year long preparation by a selected group of our best fencers who should be given the most opportunity to develop their potential for after all, they will eventually represent us against other nations, and their pride in attaining excellence in international results will also become all American fencers’ pride. Preparing a team or even an international fencer based only on individual training carried on at a club level is no longer sufficient. There are many reasons for saying this, which would take too long to analyze here. Suffice it to say that a team is no longer composed of four individuals, but is an entity which has been formed through years of practice as a group.
Selecting a team under a strict point system, without any special preparation, is just ignoring that this system is a “one or two shot affair”. One need only finish among the first three during the nationals of an Olympic year to make it. On this occasion some fencer may come up with a “high” performance which he will never be able to duplicate. The team will then be stocked with more dead weight for the Olympics.
When we realize that each Olympic team is allowed one alternate only, we can see the implication of dead weight in the final results. It is a fact that our fencers seem to do better in the Olympics than in the World Championships. However, it is not for the reasons usually advanced.
First, we usually do not send our best representatives to the World Championships (only those who can afford to go usually do so).
Second, only three fencers may enter the individuals in the Olympics instead of 5 as in the World Championships. At first sight it would seem that we should have a better chance to advance out of our perennial “first round”, but a quick look at the value of the European fencers, who are generally better than our best, leaves us with less chance because of their greater participation.
If something is gained by our fencers during the Olympics it is essentially “international experience” and certainly not better technique. To imply or say to a potential fencer who has shown some excellent results in international competition, “Too bad, but you have to make it according to our home rules” (which could not care less about potential or international experience) is to often deny our country its best representation.
Is this concept conductive to a higher development, or rather a self-defeating approach (hidden behind the “positive” result of a computer system)? How is possible to deny the existence of “potential” fencers or the value of “international experience”?
Suppose that a Ruth White (a definite potential in the eyes of all foreign leaders and coaches at Notre Dame and already somewhat experienced at the international level) became sick or was indisposed during next year’s Nationals, being eliminated in the first round or even in the semi-finals. It is most likely that she would not make the Olympic team according to the point system. She is presently considered one of the better Under-20 fencers in the world, from which ranks usually come future World or Olympic champions.
We certainly do not have too many
fencers of that category in the
Emily Johnson said “that there has never been a fencer who got out of the first round in the Olympics, during the day of selection system who would not have qualified under the point system”. This statement shows very little knowledge of our past history. I recall that in 1956, the selection of Richard Pew brought some controversy because he had not reached the finals of the Nationals in epee that year. If it had not been for the wise decision of the selection committee, Richard Pew would never have taken the 4th place in the Olympics, our best individual result that year. A selection committee can make adjustment to any situation arising from a point system; a rigid point system is without appeal.
The present modified selection system, which by the way may come up with some names as the point system, is a very judicious one.
However, our concern seems to center upon a system of selection rather than upon the preparation of a team. Is this logical?
With the point system the Nationals
becomes our ultimate goal. If we had a national squad program, the Nationals
become incidental to the main task, that of training and preparing a
If we read George Worth’s comments about the U.S.O.C.’s warning, we cannot afford to leave behind a potential fencer just because of a point system which cannot take into consideration the human factors involved in our sport. The fact is that some fencers do well as long as they stay in their own environment, and lose fifty percent of their ability when competing outside. For some others, it is just the reverse.
We want National champions; we have them every year. But, if we want to reach international preeminence, we need a new approach.