Thu, Feb 21, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Lightsaber dueling becomes a French sport

AP, BEAUMONT-SUR-OISE, France

Lightsaber enthusiasts compete in a national tournament in Beaumont-sur-Oise, France, on Sunday last week.

Photo: AP

Master Yoda, dust off his French, he must.

It is 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 cannot 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, three-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 combating a Dark Side: The sedentary habits of 21st-century life that are sickening ever-growing numbers of adults and children.

“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” federation secretary-general Serge Aubailly said. “It’s becoming difficult to [persuade them to] do a sport that has no connection with getting off 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,” Aubailly said. “Lightsaber films have the same impact. Young people want to give it a try.”

Young people — and the young at heart are coming forward.

Police officer Philippe Bondi, 49, practiced fencing for 20 years before switching to a lightsaber. When a club started offering classes in Metz, the town in eastern France where he is stationed for the gendarmerie, Bondi said he was immediately drawn by the prospect of living out the love he has 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 (US$397) on his protective body armor — sturdy gloves and pads for his chest, shoulders and shins — 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.

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

The crowd was small and a technical glitch prevented the duelers’ photographs, combat names and scores from being displayed on a big screen, making bouts tough to follow.

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