Times Change . . .

Word for the day:


nos⋅tal⋅gia /nɔstældʒə/


longing for something past

ORIGIN: 1770, Modern Latin rendering of German heimweh, from Greek nostos “homecoming” + algos “pain, grief, distress.” Originally “severe homesickness,” transferred sense of “wistful yearning for the past” first recorded 1920.

Allowing fencers to feel they’ve reached the big time is not the only argument I find unpersuasive for keeping national fencing tournaments as large as they are now.

Another claim I hear fairly often—typically from a middle-aged or older coach or referee—is that large tournaments are important for young fencers to meet and develop friendships with others from all over the country, that such friendships are essential components for the development of young fencers—not just into accomplished athletes—but into competent and responsible adults.

This one’s easy for me to dismiss. After all, when these proponents of large tournaments as educational institutions were young, our large tournaments weren’t large at all by today’s standards. Even as little as a decade ago, USFA’s Summer Nationals were smaller than some NACs are now. Local tournaments were purely developmental, entered mostly by fencers who’d just begun to learn the sport. Outside the very few fencing centers around the country (the New York metropolitan area, and perhaps Los Angeles and Portland) any fencers who sought serious competition had to enter and travel to national events to find real challenge. Today, though, national events are no longer the only places to find the friendly rivals that were so important to the proponents of this argument, and there’s a good argument to be made that national events are now so large and ungainly that they actually hinder the formation of such valuable relationships.

But I find this argument interesting as an aspect of a more comprehensive problem within the sport of fencing:

USA Fencing is a deeply nostalgic organization.

Of course, there is a lot to like about the history and traditions of fencing. There are the salutes and handshakes, and at least a tradition  of courtliness, however much it may now be honored in the breach. There’s the huge and growing Hall of Fame collection that Andy Shaw maintains, and it’s rare to have a chat with George Masin without hearing about some interesting new artifact he’s just acquired or bid on.

And there are the stories! I’ve been in the sport long enough now to have accumulated some of my own (Austin 2003, Reno & the lost equipment train, the Tucson home & garden show NAC, for just a few), but the stories are part of what first caught and then kept me around the sport—tales of weird calls, novel ways of cheating with equipment, stylish and original means of provoking the presentation of black cards, coaches reenacting competing versions of entire bouts . . .

But there’s a dangerous downside to nostalgia.

We can look back too fondly at the past, remembering people and friendships and feelings, and forgetting the reality of that past. We can long for a gentlemanly once-upon-a-time and forget that it excluded complete categories of people we take for granted now in our sport.

Nostalgia can make us believe that our memories represent reality, that way the world was is still the way it is, that the beliefs and behaviors that allowed us to survive our past still equip us for the future.

My nostalgic middle-aged coaches and officials are right to want those valuable relationships for their young students. But those students inhabit a different world than their mentors—they’ll find their friends and rivals and memories, all right—but not in the same way or in the same places. In 20 years or 50 years, those kids will look back on their own past, and worry that their own successors will miss out somehow because the world has changed too much, while their own kids will—like every generation—do just fine creating their own memories.

However valuable its history and traditions are, USA Fencing—specifically, USA Fencing’s governance—can no longer afford to indulge in nostalgia. We’ve outgrown the structure that served what we used to be. We need to look clearly at who and what we are now to create the structures that will serve and support the different organization we already are.

Times change. There’s no going back.


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