I tried to take statistics in college, but found that I was lacking enough (read: any) math skills to succeed. But put a fencing score sheet in front of me and I can calculate indicators like a house on fire. I spotted a large book on a high shelf at one of my all-time favorite used bookstores (Logos, on the Pacific Garden Mall, Santa Cruz, CA) with a spine that read “1932 Olympic Record”. Flipping through the pages, I found, to my surprise, the pool-by-pool accounts of all of the fencing events. And for 1932, that meant I could check out just exactly how dominant Gyorgy Piller of Hungary was in the sabre events. Answer: Very. That book was the first purchase made for the West Coast Fencing Archive. Not terribly cheap, either. If you find yourself scanning abebooks.com for an example, you will find them but rarely and often for more than I paid, for books in poorer condition.
Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered they are mostly available online! Whilst Google-stalking a fencer from Los Angeles who competed on the 1932 team (Harold Corbin) I discovered that the 1984 Olympic Committee had done quite a bit of work to digitize Olympic Records dating back to the earliest Modern Olympics in 1896.
The 1896 Olympic Record cover
I suspect in 1896 the organizers weren’t exactly certain there would be another Modern Olympics, which is likely why they did not put the date on the cover. There are certainly some oddities in the book. The description of the events takes day by day approach, rather than event by event. And, while there are some photographs, they aren’t captioned, nor matched to the page where the text might describe what the photograph shows. Not even close. The fencing pictures were tucked in between descriptions of the Long Jump competition. Still, hey, photos of fencers!
A fencing team from 1896
Although there isn’t a caption, I’ll call this one “A Grand Salute”!
The above photo is interesting in that you can see neither fencer is wearing their masks. Also, the fencer on the left has his blade drawn back over the top of his own head, which seems to indicate that the two are demonstrating the Grand Salute, rather than competing for a touch. The 1896 book does not cover the individual matches or pools, so the who-did-what-to-whom is not available, unfortunately. I’ll skip the 1900 Paris Olympic book for several reasons. First, no photographs of fencers. Second, it’s all in French. Third, they could have put photographs of fencers in the book, as proven by the number of photos of automobiles and motorcycles helping describe that part of the Olympic competition. Fourth, I don’t like the book because previous sentence.
The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis, MO, as part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. (Thank you Wikipedia for that particular tidbit.) There were two competing Olympic books for this, published not by the Olympic Committee, but rather by outside publishers. The first I found to have little or no fencing info, so I include here just the one from the Spalding Athletic LIbrary.
The 1905 almanac for the 1904 Olympics
Not a great deal of fencing coverage in this book, to say the least. In fact, it would have been a challenge to put in any less coverage. Just a list of names, no nationalities, conflicting (and all wrong) spellings of “Ramon Fonst” of Cuba, but still coverage. Of a sort.
The 1904 fencing results
This was an interesting event, in that a handful of Americans and two Cubans seem to have been the only competitors. The Americans lent out one of their members to the Cubans, Alberston Van Zo Post, to make up an “International” squad, so they could at least have one team event. Things were a little more hotly contested in 1908.
The 1908 Olympic Record cover
This seems to be the event where the fencing really began to take on the nature of an international competition for supremacy, versus what seems to have been more of an exhibition in previous Olympics. This is my conjecture only. So much more to read. Fourteen nations competed in the 1908 games, the US and Cuba not among them. Also, there was no official foil event, nor, at this juncture, women’s events.
A note regarding an early round team match.
There are some very interesting notes in this book, as above. “…without receiving a single scratch”? Sounds like Sabre may have been a pretty interesting event if “scratches” were commonplace. It might also indicate a reason behind one other thing I found that surprised me:
Scores for the Sabre Team final.
Matches fought to a single touch! I guess if you were in danger of receiving a “scratch” from your opponent’s sabre, a one-touch match might well be preferable.
The victorious Hungarians.
Jeno Fuchs, individual and team Gold Medal winner in 1908 and 1912, is the short guy with glasses.
The 1912 cover.
The 1912 games saw the introduction of the Men’s Foil individual event, although still no team. And still no women’s events. Sixteen nations competed this time, including the US, where we had a couple of fencers make it as far as semi-final rounds. The book itself has some very nice flourishes.
Some of the Gold Medal winners.
You may notice that the Hungarian squad is somewhat larger than we might see today. The below snapshot may indicate why and also tell a little about future changes to Olympic team formation.
Sabre individual final pool.
The Hungarians fielded 12 entrants in the event. Other nations had similar numbers of entrants. In looking ahead, this did not immediately cause an alteration in the number of participants per weapon, per country, but I suspect it may have provided an example to those who wanted to limit such numbers in future Olympiads.
Fuchs versus Nadi
I love the above photo for a number of reasons. It’s great to see the lone Italian (also lone non-Hungarian) finalist mixing it up with the Gold medalist. Also interesting is the number of spectators. Maybe there were a couple more on the same side where the photo was taken from. You know… maybe not, too. Last, it’s interesting to note that Nedo Nadi could enter a competition and NOT take first place. He ended up 5th amongst the eight finalists. Aldo Nadi wrote of brother Nedo only ever taking Gold in his Olympic events, but clearly that was not entirely the case. Nedo did win the Gold in the Foil event in this Olympics. He also won the Sabre Gold in the next Olympics of 1920, but the Hungarians were not in the field.
With World War One looming, I will stop for the time being. These books help fill in some very interesting data about fencers who we know today mostly – if at all – by name and/or reputation. More to come another time!