A shriek of delight echoed around the hall as the tip of a pointed weapon made contact with a white body armour. The sight of two competitors, covered from head to toe, clashing blades in furious fashion may bemuse most in India, but fencing has started to make its mark in the country. Indians may not be world-beaters now, but there is a steadily growing base of players in the discipline, which has a rich tradition across the country, ranging from ‘talvarbazi’ in the north to ‘kalaripayattu’ in the south.
But the sport, in its modern garb, is generally associated with the European aristocracy (it is the national sport of France), and out of the 10 gold medals up for grabs at the Rio Olympics, nine went to that continent with Russia bagging as many as four of them. South Korea made the Asian presence felt with a solitary yellow metal. No Indian won a medal; no Indian even qualified for the event.
Then, the sport is only about 35 years old in India, but the country is starting to make its presence felt, at least at the age-group levels. Ask 20-year-old Jasseerat Singh from Patiala why, and he inhesitantly replies. It tests you both physically and mentally. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
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But remarkably, for a country taking relatively baby steps in a sport whose whole vocabulary is in French, India has done decently. “We started by getting four training kits from Iran in 1974, and had to share them around. From that low base, we now have about 500 players in the country,” Sanjay Pradhan, CEO of the Fencing Association of India, told The Indian Express. “Now we have a fencer in Karan Singh who clinched a gold medal in the junior category at the 2015 Commonwealth Championship.”
It has also managed to stretch its reach. There was a time most of the fencers in the country came from Punjab and Manipur, but now the talent also comes from states like Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. “The National Institute of Sport in Patiala, and the Army Sport Institute in Pune provide a lot of training, with the latter having a Russian coach, but we do our bit as well. We have invited coached from France to impart training to our fencers,” Pradhan said.
But like most peripheral sports in the country, the sport doesn’t enjoy much patronising. The investment on the sport is neglible, and as opposed to popular perceptions, the sport is quite expensive. “The surface for a fencing bout, known as piste, has to be imported. The best ones come from Germany, but depending on our resources we may have to procure them from Hungary or even China,” Deepak Singh Patial, a former India fencer, now a coach and international referee, told s.“Then there is the whole specialised scoring system. Points are scored when a weapon touches a body with the required force. If we go for the best, the whole package can cost around Rs 4.5 lakh,” he add.
This is not all. The investment for the weapon comes after that. “That can set one back by Rs 45,000, and there is no guarantee about the longevity of a blade,” Patial said. And the three variants – foil, sabre and epees – require different blades. The protective clothing is also imported as one can’t take chances while competing with a pointed weapon. “The best stuff comes from Europe,” said Patial, who is officiating at the 4th U-23 National Fencing Championship.
For such an expensive sport, which does not have mass appeal in India, government support is crucial. “We are rapidly growing in the sport and getting medals at international meets. But holding camps and tournaments, getting equipment and infrastructure, and sending fencers abroad requires a lot of money,” Pradhan said. “Bhavani Devi is one of our best fencers and came quite close to qualifying for the Rio Olympics.”
They even had an outside chance of landing a medal at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. “But the government did not clear our participation. Our request to participate on a no-cost-to-government basis was also turned down. As of now, our aim is to get an Indian fencer to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We are among the top six countries in Asia, and have a good chance of reaching the podium at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games. We have our fingers crossed,” he claimed.
Lagan Jindal, a 17-year-old fencer from Patiala, has her targets firmly in sight. “I want to qualify for the 2020 Olympics and aim for a medal in 2024,” she said. If she can indeed manage to achieve her dream, the sport’s graph in the country will invariably shoot up.