Living by the sword

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The blade in Oscar Garcia’s right hand glints like mercury in the Caribbean sunlight. The ambrosial scent of bougainvillea floods through the rusty, barred windows of this old clay-walled gym, but the mood inside is anything but fragrant.

I am in the midst of a blistering sword fight, regretting having had the temerity to travel here to ask for a duel with one of the best foilists in the world. Never before have I felt so heavy and graceless; I have just made a clumsy attack that has fallen pathetically short. Now I am retracting my sword and backtracking feverishly. Nettled by my attack, my opponent now looks like a man possessed; a demon with 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 obscured by the black steel mesh of his mask. I try to blink away the sweat in my eyes and the trance induced by his foil flexing back and forth like a cobra, transfixing its victim before the deadly strike. And then it comes, just as I’ve run out of ground. My blade tries to block his, but snicks empty air.

Oscar Garcia, an Olympic gold medallist, explodes in a full lunge. Within half a second his body thrusts forward: his left leg to the rear and parallel with 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 Hemingway kept his boat for the marlin fishing trips that inspired 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. Here, Olympic fencing champions live back-to-back in modest 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, which has no electricity or running water, I have just fenced 15 points with Oscar Garcia, Olympic fencing champion and Cuban idol. A group of local children hanging on the barred windows to peer in 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, desperate to escape from a journalist’s drinking habit and 20 cigarettes a day, I tried to find an outlet that would let me unleash some of my inner demons. 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 taught me how to parry (defend), riposte (counter attack) and lunge (attack). Gleefully he handed me the three weapons he had used on film sets over the years, and that make up the fencing armoury: sabre (the slashing weapon, for which everything above the waist is a target); epee (based on the rapier, with which the whole body is the target but hits are made with the point); and foil (the fastest, lightest weapon, with which hits are made on the torso and back with the point).

Just 20 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 that relies on thunder-cracking leg power to lunge with deadly, balletic precision. It requires incredible stamina, limber-stretched leg muscles and deadly hand-eye co-ordination.

I became obsessed, and I wanted more. I wanted to go to a place where fencing 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. I wanted to be taught how to fight fire with fire.

During my visit to Cuba, the world’s greatest fencers, from 84 countries, descended on Havana for the biggest annual event in the fencing calendar: the world championships. They came to a poverty-stricken country where the national monthly wage is 20 (12), to an exhibition hall where competitors and spectators alike have to pay for each sheet of toilet roll they use.

Each country has its own idiosyncratic way of fighting with a sword, learnt over centuries. The Russians fence with a heavy, robotic style and a curiously detached way of seeing victory or defeat. The Germans have technically perfect form but a heavy reliance on snappish flicks to the back, bending the blade like a fishing rod to hit. The Chinese fight with legs like unvarying pistons, driving their small forms up and down the piste (the fencing strip) like clockwork mice. The Italians have pouting temper tantrums and supercilious disdain for all around them, but their slick flamboyance makes you forgive them their attitude. And the French come with their beautiful form. Yet the Cubans have something else: an amalgamation of all styles, topped with a muscular fervour unseen among the other teams.

The astonishing thing is that the other international teams have entourages of physios, coaches and trainers for each fencer, carbohydrate-rich diets and matching white tracksuits with corporate sponsors emblazoned on the arms of their jackets. The Cubans, in direct contrast, train on a diet of rice and beans with bamboo canes or rust-encrusted foils in a training centre with no air-conditioning. At competition they have to share each other’s masks and often can’t even afford to buy the lams (special jackets for electrical fencing) that are needed. And yet still they win.

To a Cuban, it’s a sword fight, 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 sicle time of dictator Fulgencio Batista, in league with the US Mafia and corrupt American interest, fencing in Cuba was an elite sport, the preserve of the rich and noble who had learnt gentlemanly swordplay from masters dating back to the Spanish conquest.

But when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara swept to power in Havana in 1959, things changed. "El deporte derecho del pueblo [sport is the right of the people]," proclaimed Castro when setting up his communist utopia. Sport, including fencing, was made a compulsory part of the education system and opened to all. 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 programme for those whose knowledge of swords was limited to a few tatty copies of the Alexander Dumas novels.

A year after the instigation of the new fencing programme, the Cuban women’s foil team beat everyone at the 1962 Central American Games to win the gold. Four years later, in 1966, they swept the boards, winning gold in all three weapons - sabre, foil and epee - in both the men’s and women’s competitions. 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 maestros in Russia and Hungary - 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 1960s. "It is a very aggressive style, but we added something else too. How you say? We move like we are dancing?"

Fencing became a 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 its entire fencing team when a bomb blew up a Cubana airliner in Barbados. Seventy people died in the attack, most of them young fencers returning from a competition. Luis Posada Cariles, a Cuban terrorist in exile, was paid by the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation to plant the bomb.

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 centre, the first thing you see is portraits of all those killed.

Yet it is to this grim, olive-green building, with its 1970s architecture and pigeon-dropping-encrusted windows that Cubans dream of escaping. 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.

Fencers who make it into international squads are some of the few Cubans who not only travel abroad but own a telephone, an apartment or a car. "Fencing was my way to escape reality," says Oscar Garcia, an almost skeletal 5ft 11in, with arm and leg joints that look as though they are made of well-oiled flanges, crinkled eyes and a dazzling smile under a thick, black moustache.

We sit in the living room of his two-storey house, his Olympic medals - bronze for Barcelona, silver for Atlanta - and other trophies lining the walls. The house was given to him for his Olympic achievements, as was the Renault 11 Turbo that sits outside. In a country where most own 20-year-old Ladas or 1950s cars held together with coat hangers, this is a luxury equivalent to being given a Ferrari.

The selection procedure for sports in Cuba is rigorous. Children are tested for sports and made to practise ones they show an aptitude for. Like most Cuban fencers I spoke to, Oscar had no idea what fencing even was when he was tested. "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 child that none of the other trainers had, and pretty soon Oscar was cleaving aside anyone on the piste who faced him with a sword. Shortly after his 29th birthday 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 regard Oscar Garcia with awe. In a place where there are few televisions, he and Olympic epee champion Maraida Garcia provide the glamour.

At the Centre of Sport, fencing professor Nancy Quesadea, a small, sinewy woman with a voice made hoarse by bellowing at children all her life, holds court. Asked about the American fencers, she blows her lips out and says, "They have no heart, they don’t know how to fight."

She drills children as young as eight. At the heart of her methodology is making them valiant and fearless, making 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. He fences with a bamboo cane in his split black-leather school shoes.

"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 the fencing shoes Oscar Garcia wore in the Olympics and Maraida Garcia’s glove.

Yet there is a pressure on young Cubans to take up baseball or boxing, which the Cuban government invests more heavily in, and where 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 can’t disguise the fact that Cuban fencing is in trouble. Fencing can be an astonishingly expensive. An international tournament blade can be 200 (120) - ten months’ salary for many Cubans. They can use bamboo canes up to a point, but then real blades are needed.

Miguel Ibarzabal, a kindly man in his 50s, is president of the Retired Fencers Association. He is downcast at the fate of young fencers. "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."

Lack of money means Cuban fencing squads only have funds to travel to a few international World Cups - crucial for gaining points for international standings - each year. This means that they are always placed in the bottom half of the standings, and so face the world’s best teams at the start of tournaments, increasing their chances of early knock-outs.

Despite this, fencing still beats as a fierce heart in Cuba. In men’s sabre, the hopes of the country rest on Candido Maya Camjeo, a rangy fighter with an Arabian nose and a stuttering half step that throws opponents off-balance. He was the first Cuban to make the Olympic games in sabre, 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."

In the centre of Havana, at the City of Sport, where the final bouts of the world championship were played out, not one Cuban team or fencer fenced under the imperious eyes of Che Guevara, whose image on a huge banner dominates the sports stadium. On their own soil, the Cubans were defeated by moneyed opponents.

After the international teams had set off for Havana airport and their respective countries, Cuban Olympic coach Hugo Rivero Valiente finally took pity on me and agreed to teach me how to fence like a Cuban. A tall, heavily built man with gold-encased teeth, he was the most demanding fencing 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), not to 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 to 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 Caribbean. At one point Hugo scoffed, "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 must break his rhythm. I fouled up every time. Hugo would make a "tsk-tsk" noise and roll his eyeballs from behind his mask after yet another mistake on my part.

Many times my spirits sank, but something about my crushing defeat against Oscar Garcia and the enormous sacrifices the Cuban fencers make every day 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 could block it 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 shed a tear or two when I left Cojimar and Hugo and Nancy behind. But when I got back to Metropolis Fencing, my club in New York, I fenced better than I ever had. I wasn’t at Olympic level, or even high club level - four days of intense fencing lessons won’t do that. But for the first time, I beat people who had been beating me all year. One of them turned to me after our bout and asked, incredulous, "Where in the world did you learn to do that?"