French fencers can use the ‘force’ in du­els with lightsabers.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN LE­ICES­TER

BEAUMONT-SUR-OISE, FRANCE | Mas­ter Yoda, dust off his French, he must.

It’s now eas­ier than ever in France to act out Star Wars fan­tasies, be­cause its fenc­ing fed­er­a­tion has bor­rowed from a galaxy far, far away and of­fi­cially rec­og­nized lightsaber du­el­ing as a com­pet­i­tive sport, grant­ing the iconic weapon from Ge­orge Lu­cas’ saga the same sta­tus as the foil, epee and saber, the tra­di­tional blades used at the Olympics.

Of course, the LED-lit, rigid poly­car­bon­ate lightsaber repli­cas can’t slice a Sith lord in half. But they look and, with the more ex­pen­sive sabers equipped with a chip in their hilt that emits a throaty elec­tric rum­ble, even sound re­mark­ably like the sil­ver screen blades that Yoda and other char­ac­ters wield in the block­buster movies.

Plenty real­is­tic, at least, for du­elists to work up an im­pres­sive sweat slash­ing, feint­ing and stabbing in or­ga­nized, 3-minute bouts. The phys­i­cal­ity of lightsaber com­bat is part of why the French Fenc­ing Fed­er­a­tion threw its sup­port be­hind the sport and is now equip­ping fenc­ing clubs with lightsabers and train­ing would-be lightsaber in­struc­tors. Like vir­tu­ous Jedi knights, the French fed­er­a­tion sees it­self as com­bat­ting a Dark Side: The seden­tary habits of 21st-cen­tury life that are sick­en­ing ever-grow­ing num­bers of adults and kids.

“With young peo­ple to­day, it’s a real pub­lic health is­sue. They don’t do any sport and only ex­er­cise with their thumbs,” says Serge Aubailly, the fed­er­a­tion sec­re­tary gen­eral. “It’s be­com­ing dif­fi­cult to [per­suade them to] do a sport that has no con­nec­tion with get­ting out of the sofa and play­ing with one’s thumbs. That is why we are try­ing to cre­ate a bond be­tween our dis­ci­pline and mod­ern tech­nolo­gies, so par­tic­i­pat­ing in a sport feels nat­u­ral.”

In the past, the likes of Zorro, Robin Hood and The Three Mus­ke­teers helped lure new prac­ti­tion­ers to fenc­ing. Now, join­ing and even sup­plant­ing them are Luke Sky­walker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader.

“Cape and sword movies have al­ways had a big im­pact on our fed­er­a­tion and its growth,” Mr. Aubailly says. “Lightsaber films have the same im­pact. Young peo­ple want to give it a try.”

Po­lice of­fi­cer Philippe Bondi, 49, prac­ticed fenc­ing for 20 years be­fore switch­ing to lightsaber. When a club started of­fer­ing classes in Metz, the town in eastern France where he is sta­tioned for the gen­darmerie, Mr. Bondi says he was im­me­di­ately drawn by the prospect of liv­ing out the love he’s had for the Star Wars uni­verse since he saw the first film at age 7, on its re­lease in 1977.

He fights in the same wire-mesh face mask he used for fenc­ing. He spent about 350 eu­ros ($400) on his pro­tec­tive body ar­mor (sturdy gloves, chest, shoul­der and shin pads) and on his fed­er­a­tion-ap­proved lightsaber, opt­ing for lu­mi­nous green “be­cause it’s the Jedi col­ors, and Yoda is my mas­ter.”

“I had to be on the good side, given that my job is uphold­ing the law,” he said.

Mr. Bondi awoke well be­fore dawn to make the four-hour drive from Metz to a na­tional lightsaber tour­na­ment out­side Paris this month that drew 34 com­peti­tors. It show­cased how far the sport has come in a cou­ple of years but also that it’s still light years from be­com­ing main­stream.

The crowd was small and a tech­ni­cal glitch pre­vented the du­el­ers’ pho­tos, com­bat names and scores from be­ing dis­played on a big screen, mak­ing bouts tough to fol­low. But the il­lu­mi­nated swooshes of col­ored blades looked spec­tac­u­lar in the dark­ened hall. Fan cos­play as Star Wars char­ac­ters added lev­ity, au­then­tic­ity and a tickle of bizarre to the pro­ceed­ings, es­pe­cially the in­con­gru­ous sight of Darth Vader buy­ing a ham sandwich and a bag of potato chips at the cafe­te­ria dur­ing a break.

In build­ing their sport from the ground up, French or­ga­niz­ers pro­duced com­pe­ti­tion rules in­tended to make lightsaber du­el­ing both com­pet­i­tive and easy on the eyes.

“We wanted it to be safe, we wanted it to be um­pired and, most of all, we wanted it to pro­duce some­thing vis­ual that looks like the movies, be­cause that is what peo­ple ex­pect,” said Michel Or­tiz, the tour­na­ment or­ga­nizer.

Com­bat­ants fight in­side a cir­cle marked in tape on the floor. Strikes to the head or body are worth 5 points; to the arms or legs, 3 points; on hands, 1 point. The first to 15 points wins or, if they don’t get there quickly, the high scorer af­ter 3 min­utes. If both fight­ers reach 10 points, the bout en­ters “sud­den death,” where the first to land a head- or body-blow wins, a rule to en­cour­age en­ter­pris­ing fight­ers.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Com­peti­tors bat­tle dur­ing a lightsaber tour­na­ment in Beaumont-sur-Oise. The French Fenc­ing Fed­er­a­tion has of­fi­cially rec­og­nized lightsaber du­el­ing as a com­pet­i­tive sport.

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