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Training for A Fight: A Fencing Regime in Cuba
The blade in Oscar Garcia’s right hand glints like mercury in the Caribbean sunlight. Flooding through the rusty, barred windows of this old, clay-walled gym is the scent of sea salt and the ambrosial air of Bougainvillea swaying in the breeze outside. The mood inside, however, is anything but fragrant.
It’s a blustering swordfight. And I feel crass and stupid to have had the temerity to come here to ask for a duel with one of the best foilists in the world. Like never before, have I felt so heavy and graceless. I made a clumsy attack that has just fallen pathetically short. Now I am retracting my sword and backtracking feverishly trying to escape the vengeance coming my way. Nettled by my attack Oscar Garcia now looks like a man possessed; a demon with a supernatural powers levitating over the sandy floor, rapidly bearing down on me from the far end of the gym as if his legs are on castors. His expression is completely obscured by the black steel mesh of his mask, further consolidating his diabolical look.
I try to blink away the sweat out of my eyes and the trance-like effect of his foil flexing back and forth like a cobra, transfixing it’s victim before the deadly strike. And then it comes, just as I’ve run out of ground. My blade tries to block his, but just ends up fruitlessly snicking empty air. Oscar Garcia, Olympic gold medalist explodes in a full lunge. Within half a second his body thrusts forward: his rear left leg is parallel to the floor, his entire body stretched to full extension behind a finely-wrought point of steel that is now applying a deceptively gentle pressure at my throat.
This is Cojimar a small, fishing town to the east of Havana, Cuba. Here Ernest Hemmingway kept his boat, the Pilar, for marlin fishing trips that were to lead to him writing the Old Man and the Sea. But today Cojimar also has another claim to fame. It is where some of the world’s finest fencers live. The whole town is fencing-bedeviled and every day the clash of blades can be heard from alleys and low-slung Spanish in the rippling heat. Here Olympic fencing champions live back-to-back in modest Cuban houses and shacks, nodding to each other as they go to get their fish from the docks in the evening. In the town’s adobe gym with no electricity, running water I have just fenced fifteen points with local Oscar Garcia, Olympic fencing champion and idol in Cuba. A group of local children peering in and hanging on the barred windows are now grinning - their hero has beaten the visiting gringo.
And although I lost 15-2, a blistering humiliation, I have just achieved one of my greatest ambitions. Three years ago, after a bad bar brawl and, desperate to escape a twenty a day cigarette habit and a journalist’s drinking life in both London and New York that would make Oliver Reed look teetotal, I tried to find an outlet that would let me unleash some of my inner demons with the aggression I craved. I tried boxing, but the black eyes and the realization that anything less than 100% commitment meant that I would surely end up with a face like an over-boiled cabbage within six months, quelled that ambition.
And then I discovered fencing in a musty old bowling hall in Crouch End, north London. On Tuesday nights a former stuntman at the Cutting Edge fencing club would teach me how to parry (defend), riposte (counter attack) and lunge (attack). Gleefully he would hand me the three weapons he had used on film sets over the years and that make up the fencing armory: Saber (slashing weapon where everything above the waist is the target), epee (based on the rapier where the whole body is the target but hits are made with the point) and foil (the fastest, lightest weapon where hits are made on the torso and back with the point).
Just twenty years ago the sport of fencing was elegant and studied with a peculiar emphasis on etiquette. Today, it has changed remarkably to be replaced with an explosive, aggressive style relying on thunder-cracking leg power to lunge with deadly, balletic precision. It requires incredible stamina, the limber-stretched leg muscles of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the deadly hand/eye co-ordination of a professional, turn-of-the-century duelist. And even then the game referred to as “physical chess”: means that a 70 year old with a keen mind but lifeless legs, can outstrip and have a blade at the throat of someone fifty years his junior with an artful flourish of the hand. I was obsessed.
Yet I wanted more. In England fencing is seen as a ‘hobby’, which makes it, sound like stamp collecting, which it definitely isn’t. Local newspapers send reporters to the local fencing club on bad news weeks and then predictably always include the word ‘swashbuckle’ followed by a filmography of Errol Flynn in the report. Thus, the sport is seen as slightly eccentric, effete even, but the image persists. The reality and aggression of it couldn’t be more different. I wanted to go to a place where it was a passion, a part of the fabric of daily life and where people fought with fire as if their lives depended on it. In short, I wanted the real thing. And, most importantly, I wanted them to teach me to fight fire with fire….
Six days before I fenced Oscar Garcia, the world’s greatest fencers from eighty four countries around the world descended on Havana in October this year for the greatest annual event in the fencing calendar: the world championships. They came to a poverty-stricken country where the national monthly wage is $20 a day and an exhibition hall where competitors and spectators alike have to pay for each sheet of toilet roll they use.
Here over the next week we would see tears leading to both victory and defeat that in turn would lead to months of depression. In a sport that comes down to how you slice a millimeter in a split second, the pressure is enormous. Many felt the mysterious death of Chilean foilist Rodrigo Munoz Alveal, 22, who plunged to his death from his hotel balcony during the tournament amid accusations of depression, gave credence to this. The morning before his death, the Chilean team failed to show up to fence the Russians.
Each country has it’s own idiosyncratic way of fighting with a sword, learnt over centuries, which seems to be a direct reinforcement of national stereotypes. The Russians come with a heavy, robotic style and a curiously detached way of seeing victory or defeat. The Germans come with a technically perfect form but with a heavy reliance on snappish, flicks to the back bending the blade like a fishing rod to hit. The Chinese come with legs like unvarying pistons, driving their small forms up and down the piste (the fencing strip) like robotic mice. The Italians come with their pouting temper tantrums, supercilious straight-backed disdain for all around them and yet a slick flamboyance that makes you forgives them all the other stuff. The French come with their beautiful form (French is the international language of fencing) but as one American fencer was to say: “I hate fencing them. Every time you hit them they always try to shirk, to bend their body to avoid it - anything to wriggle out of it basically.”
Yet the Cuban’s come with something else: an amalgamation of all styles but topped with a muscular fervor unseen among all the other teams. The astonishing thing is that the Russians will have their entourage of physios, coaches and trainers for each fencer, the French and Germans, their carbo-hydrate rich diets matching, gleaming white tracksuits with corporate sponsors emblazoned on the arms of their fencing jackets. Yet the Cubans, in direct contrast, train with bamboo canes or rust encrusted foils in a training centre with no air-conditioning on a diet of rice and beans. At competition they have to share each other’s masks and often can’t even afford to buy electrical jackets that are needed. And yet still they win.
To a Cuban it’s a swordfight, not a fencing bout. They’ve lived through revolution, communism, the 40-year American blockade and brutal poverty, As Amy Gomez, former epee champion, told me, “Cubans are born fighting, it’s just a natural Cuban characteristic.”
The fortunes of Cuban fencing have been a metaphor for the politics of the nation. Under the fin de siecle time of dictator Fulgencio Batista, in league with the US mafia and corrupt American interest, fencing in Cuba was a small, elite sport. It was the preserve of the rich and noble who had learnt gentlemanly swordplay from Spanish masters dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest. But when Castro and Che Guevara swept to power in Havana in 1959 things changed. “El deporte drecho del pueblo – sport is the right of the people,” proclaimed Fidel Castro when setting up his communist utopia. Sport was made a compulsory part of the education system and opened to all, including fencing.
Many of the top-flight fencing coaches were part of the corrupt Batista regime and fled in exile to Miami and parts of Latin America. One man stayed, Jorge Luis Sanches. He launched a phenomenally successful fencing program for those whose knowledge of swords was limited to a few tatty copies of Alexander Dumas novels. A year after the new fencing programme, the Cuban women’s foil team beat everyone at the 1962 Central American Games to win gold. Four years later in 1966 they swept the board winning gold in all three weapons, saber, foil and epee in both men and women’s. The Cubans were naturals.
They had the passion to win and then as Castro sought alliances with other Communist countries, Cuban fencers were sent to train at top fencing schools under elite maestro’s in Russia and Hungry – two of the strongest fencing countries in the world. “We have taken the best characteristics from Russian, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish and made Cuban fencing,” explains Orlando Ruiz, a former champion from the sixties. “It is a very aggressive style but we added something else too. How you say? We move like we are dancing?” Fencing became a phenomenally successful part of the daily life of Cuba and was used to further links with Russia.
But this also put fencing in the front line of politics. In 1976 Cuba lost practically their entire fencing team when a bomb blew up a Cubana airliner in Barbados. Seventy people died in the attack, mostly adolescent fencers returning from competition. A Cuban terrorist in exile, Luis Posada Carriles, had planted the bomb. The Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation paid him. The CIA knew of the bombing beforehand, which was later confirmed by a New York Times investigation in 1998.
Afterwards the entire country went into mourning. A million Cubans met in Revolution Square and Fidel Castro led the country in their sorrow. The Martyrs of Barbados, as they became known, were national symbols of Cuban courage and heart. At the national training center the first thing you see is portraits of all those killed.
Yet it is to this grim, olive green building with it’s 70’s architecture and pigeon dropping encrusted windows that Cubans dream of escape to. Sport is one of the only ways to escape the poverty, other than jumping in the Florida straits for the shark-infested 90-mile swim to the US to escape. And sport also offers the only chance to leave the country and often, the only way to defect. Elvis Gregory, who fenced on the same medal winning team as Oscar in Atlanta, defected and now works at the Club Schermaroma in Italy. He can never return to Cuba and it is, effectively, as if he never lived or was born there. He has been wiped from the public consciousness.
Cubans who make international squads are part of the few who not only travel abroad, but own a telephone, their own apartment or even a car. “Fencing was my way to escape reality,” says Oscar Garcia, a skinny almost skeletal 5 11 with arm and leg joints that look as though they are made of well-oiled flanges, crinkled eyes and a dazzling smile set off under a thick, black moustache. We sit in the living room of his two-storey house, his Olympic medals, bronze and silver for Barcelona and Atlanta and other trophies, lining the walls. His wife, an epee champion sits at his side. The house was given to him for his Olympic achievements, as was the Renault 11 Turbo which sits outside. In a country where most own twenty year Ladas or 1950’s cars held together with coat hangers is a luxury, equivalent to being given a Ferrari. For other countries like the UK and US it works the other way round: people have to make money at other jobs to fence to Olympic level.
The selection procedure for sports is rigorous. Children are tested for sports and made to practice ones they show aptitude for. Like most Cuban fencers I spoke to, Oscar had no idea what fencing even was when he was tested. Back then he was a small, scrawny child. “I went to volleyball and I was too short,” he says. “I went to baseball and I held the bat the wrong way round. I went to fencing and did the same.”
But the fencing masters saw something in the small kid, none of the other sports trainers wanted. They too stand to benefit from a prodigy. Pretty soon Oscar was cleaving aside anyone on the piste who faced him with a sword. And even when he went to Eastern Bloc countries, saw snow for the first time and won championship after championship the Cuban government were still decisive in insisting that he had to maintain form if he was allowed to continue at the age of 29. “They said if I didn’t do well I had to stop.” Shortly after, he won gold in the Olympics and was second in the world rankings. “It was my childhood dream,” he says with his famous, watery-eyed, face-crinkling smile.
In Cojimar there are scores of children who revere Oscar Garcia with awe. In place where there are few TV’s, he is the local glamour along with Olympic epee champion Maraida Garcia.
At the Centre of Sport, is fencing professor Nancy Quesadea, a small, sinewy woman with a voice made hoarse by bellowing at children all her life. Within two days of meeting her she asked me to punch her in the stomach to show how her stomach muscles were like knitted steel. I said no and she looked at me with a pitying shrug. When I asked her about the American fencers she blew her lips out and said, “They have no heart, they don’t know how to fight.”
She drills children as young as eight with a scampering, boisterousness. At the heart of her methodology is making them valiant and fearless. To do this she makes them run along the crumbling sea wall or lie on the dusty floor of the gym while the other children run over their heads. She is adored in the town.
Her young prodigy is Alain Duvergel,11, who already has an insolent wink, a scowl and a lunge that could crack a walnut at ten paces. Among the other kids he is known as ‘the little cucumber,’ due to the conical shape of his head. He fences with a bamboo cane and in his black leather school shoes which are split. His mother has problems working due to cancer. “I want to travel, to win medals and to give Nancy things to put in her museum,” he says with a direct gaze, indicating behind him. In dusty display cases are Oscar Garcia’s fencing shoes that he wore in the Olympics and Maraida Garcia’s glove.
Yet there is a pressure on young Cubans to take up sports like baseball or boxing, which the Cuban government invest far more heavily in and there is a greater chance of fame or riches. “I don’t care to be famous,” he shrugs with contempt. “What is important is my will and my results. There are many who are guided by fame and they fail in life.”
But idealism, a big Cuban trait can’t disguise the fact that Cuban fencing is in trouble. Fencing can be an astonishingly expensive. An international tournament blade can be $200, which is ten month’s salary to many Cubans. They can use bamboo canes up to a point but then real blades are needed.
Miguel Ibarzabal, a kindly man in his fifties with gold-rimmed glasses, is president of the Retired Fencers Association. The association takes care of old fencers, running errands for them, helping them money and working on their homes if anything happens.
But for the young fencers now he is downcast. “We have no weapons,” he says. “And fencers are diminishing because we can’t carry on. It’s amazing we can even fence in a world championship like this,” he says, casting his hands around at the tournament. “We have had the foot of the United States on us for so long now,” he says slamming his hand on the table. “But we think we have finally found a way.” And with that he grins.
A few older retired fencers with engineering experience are now forging their own blades. They are heavy and crude but better than wood. “Last month we had weapons for the first time,” he says. “We are Cuban - we always find a way.”
Yet the lack of money also means that Cuban fencing squads can only have funds to travel to a few international World Cups each year which are crucial for gaining points for international standings. It also means that they are always placed in the bottom half of the standings and face the world’s best teams at the start of tournaments increasing the chances of early knock outs.
Despite this fencing still beats as a fierce heart in Cuba. In men’s saber the hopes of the country and a voluble crowd at the tournament rest on Candido Maya Camjeo, a rangy fighter with an Arabian nose and a stuttering half step that throws his opponents off-balance. In the opening rounds of the men’s saber he had knocked out the Polish and Chinese teams, strong contenders, to face Italian Luigi Tarantino, an arrogant and ribald number five in the world for a place in the final. For every point, the Cubans cheer so loudly your fillings rattle. But Maya is overpowered by the haughty Italian.
“He surprised me with his speed,” he says afterwards, slightly subdued, but graceful in defeat. He was the first Cuban to make the Olympic games in Saber, but he fears for the future of the sport. “We are being reduced all the time,” he says. “I don’t think we will make it to the Olympics because of the economic problems we face.”
Maya probably did the best out of all the Cubans, ending 16th in the men’s saber. Their other competitors were no match for the time and money other countries can put into their teams. The Italian fencers are all police officers where they receive a badge, a gun and a no-show job leaving them to fence every day. They swept most awards including both men’s team foil and women’s foil, overawing most with a lightening flamboyance. The Cuban women’s epee team knocked out the Japanese in the first round only to lose to Estonia in the next. In the centre of Havana at the City of Sport where the final bouts were played out not one Cuban team or fencer fenced under the imperious eyes of Che Guevara, whose image dominates the sports stadium on a huge banner. Even on their own soil the Cubans faced a slicker, more moneyed opponent.
Long after professional teams took the drive to Havana airport and back to their respective countries with heads hung low or aloft, I stayed on in Cuba. Cuban Olympic coach Hugo Rivero Valiente, took pity on me and agreed to teach me how to fence like a Cuban. A tall, heavily built man with gold encased eyeteeth he was the most demanding fencer teacher I have had.
The first thing he made me do was fence with my eyes closed. It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. The idea was what the French call “Sentiment du Fer’ (the feeling of the steel) to not see but to feel what your opponent is about to do. It was a disaster at first.
For several days we drove out to Cojimar and he worked me until the quadricep muscles in my legs felt as though they had been injected with acid and it was all I could do keep my arm hanging limply by my side with the effort of holding up the foil for hours. “Adelante! Adelante! (forward) he would shout, “Arras! Arras! (back) and there we would go for hours in the old gym in the searing heat of the Carribean. At one point Hugo said, “You may have money but your legs are weak.”
Every fencer has a rhythm where hand and feet work together, to fence well you need a metronomic beat to every action and to defeat an opponent you break his rhythm. I fouled up every time. Hugo would make a tsk! tsk! noise from behind his mask after another innumerable mistake on my part and raise his eyeballs.
Many times my spirits sank, but something about my crushing defeat against Oscar Garcia and the enormous sacrifices the Cuban fencers have made forced me to carry on.
On the final day Hugo put me through every move he had taught me. And for the first time in my life I reached what ‘fencers’ call the ‘zone’ – a place where the hand, eye and body move in perfect co-ordination, robotic perfection. It was the sweetest feeling I have ever had, my legs moving in sync with deadly right arm. I could feel an attack before it happened. I felt like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix when all knowledge became his. I could block an attack before it started, unflinching with only peripheral vision, and riposte with deadly speed. I saw Hugo’s gold teeth wink at me under his black mask as he finally drew his lips back in a smile. “Buenisimo! (beautiful),” he said, and gave me a huge hug.
I never did get to fence Oscar Garcia again. And I’ll admit that I shed a tear or two when I left Cojimar and left Hugo and Nancy behind. But when I got back to my fencing club in New York, Metropolis Fencing, I fenced better than I ever had. I wasn’t Olympic level, or even high club level, fours day of intense fencing lessons won’t do that. But for the very first time I beat people who had been beating me all year. One of them turned to me after our bout and said, “Now where in the world did you learn to do that?