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Olympic Fencing: A Mighty Duel, a Sound Strategy

by Meg Heery

August 2, 2012

If you watched Olympic fencing this week, did you ever wonder what all that screaming was about?

As it turns out, vocalizing plays an important and time-honored role in the sport. And on Wednesday, the final rounds of the London Olympics’ women’s individual sabre competition gave us a convincing tale of the value of the scream.

Gold-medal favorite Mariel Zagunis scored quickly, as expected, against Jiyeon Kim of South Korea, scoring three points in the first three seconds of her bout. By midway through the second three-minute round, the American had built up a 12-to-5 lead. Then Kim started screaming: throaty, shrill, out-of-a-slasher-movie screaming that punctuated every point. It was disconcerting.

In what felt like seconds, Zagunis’s 12-5 lead collapsed into a 15-13 loss.

We’ve all seen such vocalizations at least once, perhaps in karate and tennis: Players coordinate their hits with their breathing. A strong exhalation in tandem with the stroke or the blow can increase focus and intensify the hit. It’s natural for the vocal cords to get involved; hence, the kiai in martial arts or the grunts and squeals heard on the court. Vocalizing raises and focuses energy and can, depending on the opponent, intimidate or annoy. It’s a battle cry.

In fencing, vocalizing also serves a practical purpose. Before electronic scoring, duelers had to claim their points themselves, since attacks happened so quickly that the referee could easily miss who hit first. Vocalizing became part of fencing’s complex mental game.

As fencing evolved as a sport of the noble classes, the practice took on an air of propriety. Fencers would call “et là!” (loosely, that’s French for “take that!”) and that’s about it. Today the yelling has gotten louder and less to do with adding power to the attack than it does with celebrating at the end of a point.

And, based on my very limited and unscientific study during these Olympics, it is far and away more common in women than in men. Ines Boubakri of Tunisia, for instance, has turned shrieking into high art.

In the men’s epée bout for the gold medal between Norway’s Bartosz Piasecki and Venezuela’s Ruben Limardo, there was barely a peep. Instead, their nonverbal game involved space. After every touch, Limardo would run past Piasecki to the end of his side of the piste, claiming the entire territory. Despite Piasecki’s impressive comeback effort, Limardo won 15-10. He made no audible sound until after the fight was over, bellowing up into the stands.

Later, in the women’s sabre bronze medal bout, Zagunis went up against Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan. For about two-thirds of the fight they were neck and neck. Tied with 10 points apiece a minute into the second round, Kharlan started shrieking through every point, while Zagunis, who is known to let out a good yell when she wins, remained silent by comparison. Kharlan won, 15-10.  

Zagunis blamed herself for her losses. “I pretty much handed it to her,” she said of her fight against Kim. “It was my mistakes that cost me the bout.”

As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of some teenagers my husband rode the subway with recently (high-school age, he guessed). At a sudden turn, a jolt, one of the girls let out a yelp. "Hey, I’m a girl,” the girl said to no one in particular. “We scream. It’s what we do.”  Come again? What does that even mean? I thought before this week.

If Zagunis had embraced her inner girl on the subway, would it have changed her game? Giving voice to the inner warrior, releasing that battle cry, is an ancient tradition that enables a fighter to muster strength and emerge from behind whatever mask she might be wearing. It may not be the exclusive domain of girls, but a battle cry is definitely something every woman could use to her advantage.

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey
City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more
frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Meg Heery, "Meet Your New Olympic Heroes." Cafe, On the Issues Magazine, August 1, 2012.

Sabrina Margarita Alcantera, "Power From My People." On the Issues Magazine, Winter 1997.

Laura Shamas, "Leaping, Racing, Spearing: The Female Athlete Amazes in Myth." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2010.


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