Monday, January 26, 2009

A Tale of Two Sporting Events, or Bout Time



I have loved sports all my life. When I was younger, I enjoyed the usual sports, especially football and basketball. While life choices, injury, physical limitations and, yes, lack of talent made sports less a part of my life after age 17, I still enjoy sports both as a participant and a spectator. This past weekend, I was able to do both, and experience two very different cultures while doing so.

I fence as a hobby, and this weekend I participated in fencing tournament. My weapon of choice is epee. While the other weapons (foil, sabre) are encumbered with esoteric rules governing scoring and target area, epee fencing is simplicity itself. If you hit your opponent without being hit, you score. If both fencers hit simultaneously, they both score. The epee fencer can hit any part of his opponent -- the sword arm is frequently the target of choice because it is the part of the body closest to the fencer. Despite the relative simplicty of the game, skill and strategy are both necessary to do well. To do really well, athleticism is also a plus. A fencing bout contains a bit of ceremony, with salutes and handshakes required at the proper times. The sport does involve contact, and bruises are not unusual, especially in epee. However, despite the exertion, the particpants are almost always civil on and off the fencing strip.

There were few spectators at the tournament who were not participants themselves. Included in the participants and coaches were a published author, businessmen, college instructors, and students.

My portion of the tournament did not go very well. After starting relatively well in the preliminary rounds (2 wins, 2 losses), I lost to a lower seeded fencer, lost two places in the standings and was eliminated from competition.

My second sports outing of the day involved a very different atmosphere. A coworker had been encouraging me to go see her participate in her sport of choice: roller derby. Prior to her invitation, I had not even thought of the sport for decades. Indeed, what I remembered was less sport and more "sports entertainment," very much like professional wrestling. When I was a kid, between weekend episodes of the Three Stooges or the Li'l Rascals, I would occasionally tune into matches involving the Washington Tiger-Cats, who would whiz around a banked rink flinging their opponents into and over the protective rail. The teams were co-ed, with men and women alternating periods. Characters like Little Richard Brown and Big Bertha were the stars, and my brother and I would reinact the matches in our socks on the tiled floor in the basement rec room. For a look at roller derby of this era, see the film Kansas City Bomber.


The 2009 version of roller derby bore some resemblance to the "game" I remembered from 1970's UHF TV. The teams fielded five skaters each, with one skater, designated as the "jammer," able to score points. The bout was held at a local roller rink, so the track on which the women skated was completely flat. The teams were entirely female, and some played up the vixen angle a little. Spectacle was the order of the day, with odd costumes, mascots, and wild names for the skaters and referees based on violent wordplay: Jule C. Blood, Anita Straitjacket, I. Candy Stroyu. The particpants did roller derby as an avocation; all came from and went back to their "normal" lives and jobs outside the rink.

Interestingly, the skaters actually contested the bout -- the outcome did not appear scripted at all. In fact, the score was somewhat of a blowout: Richland County Regulators 191, Soul City Sirens 106. The sport was rough, but the violence was not excessive. While there were plenty of falls and some hard hits, there were no fights and only two stoppages for injury. Both injured skaters were able to leave the rink under their own power. Success and failure depended on athleticism, teamwork, strategy and technique. Penalties were meted out for infractions, and the referees (of which there were many) called a fair game. All of this was in contrast to my childhood memories.

The bout attracted many spectators, almost all of whom paid upwards of $10 for the privilige. While I do not know the vocations of the skaters (save my one coworker), my daughter did overhear two spectators remark that they had just been released from prison.

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