HEMA at the European Games 2019

Although it is becoming increasingly mainstream, most people have probably not heard the term HEMA before, or been aware of the rapid growth of interest in these indigenous European martial arts. HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) is a catch all term describing those combat arts of the European diaspora that have survived and been passed down to us in written form, and that are held in trust at museums, libraries and private collections around the world.

(Display of historic fencing manuals, part of Roberto Gotti’s collection)

One of the leading proponents of Italian HEMA is Roberto Gotti (https://scherma.roma.it/aimaroma/en/program/teachers/roberto-gotti), of the Gairethnix Institute, whose tireless efforts to gain international recognition for our art has finally culminated in HEMA being integrated into the cultural exchange program by the IOC (International Olympic Commission) (https://www.olympic.org/the-ioc) for the European Games 2019, one of the most prestigious sporting events outside the Olympic Games themselves. The European Games featured 200 events in 15 sports (23 disciplines) and the organisers expected around 4,000 athletes from 50 countries. Ten of the sports offered qualification opportunities for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Jay Maxwell, who runs a local HEMA fencing school in Southwark (www.tempus-fugitives.co.uk) was chosen to represent the UK at this prestigious event as part of the team for GB and Ireland, receiving sponsorships from such companies as Crossguard, manufacturers of the prototype ProGauntlet (http://progauntlet.nl/), which looks like a futuristic piece of Batman’s arsenal, and Malleus Martialis of Florence (http://malleusmartialis.com/), who make high end custom blades for HEMA athletes. This report is based on his experiences over the weekend.

(The mythical ProGauntlet holding a Malleus Martialis competition blade)

As all such expeditions do, the trip began with flight delays at Heathrow and resulted in a late arrival in Warsaw minutes before the connection to Minsk was due to depart. But the airport staff stepped up admirably, rushing athletes through side gates in order to get them to their flights on time, and even managing to get the equipment loaded prior to departure. The problems only began upon arrival in Minsk. Almost every athlete was detained by overzealous border guards, analysing documents, and asking for identification or authorisation that had never been provided. Fortunately the organising committee had a NATO lawyer in its retinue, who enthusiastically launched himself into resolving this for the athletes on our flight, but we were to discover later that many other athletes had been turned away at the border, despite the diplomatic arrangements allowing for visa free entry for The Games. Our difficulties were not to end once past the border guards however; one member of our team was detained and had his case cut open as officials argued over whether or not to accept his documentation. Other cases had gone missing, arrived damaged or showed marks where attempts had been made to force the locks.

(The most profitable job in HEMA is as a travel agent)

Once through the gates and into Minsk airport, the scale of the investment in the Games was immediately obvious. Banners ran the length of buildings, enormous screens played adverts for various disciplines, and there was an army of young people dressed in event uniforms to aid discombobulated and jet lagged travellers. Everything was branded, from coffee cups to busses, and the event had a festival atmosphere.

Everything was swept, cleaned and cleared of anything that might be considered unsightly. Live performances were delivered at open air concerts in the most modern part of the city (away from unsightly corrugated steel roofs), smiles were on every face and I was treated in a most respectful and considerate manner at all times. Something that was particularly obvious, however, was an excessive military presence. Everywhere we went, large bodies of troops were marching about seemingly aimlessly for the sake of security; although what a 200 man strong body of men is supposed to do to prevent pickpocketing is quite beyond the author’s imagination. Raising questions about this was met with discomfort, as the recipient stated that it was not safe to discuss such things.

(Event security)

The stark contrasts between the event spaces open to the public, and the areas you would consider ‘behind the scenes’ was dramatic, however. Minsk had dressed up like an ageing debutante, but make-up couldn’t hide the wrinkles. Arriving at the Olympic village, it quickly became clear that this had been built in the soviet era and was purely functional. Six athletes would share one cramped and unventilated shower, which was integrated into the dormitory apartment and would flood as a result of condensation and the absence of simple shower curtains. Curtains or blinds were not provided in the dormitory rooms, and when the sun rose at 04:00am the only option was to drowse with a pillowcase over your face. A lack of air conditioning left the option of overheating or attempting to tolerate the sound of traffic through the open windows.

(At the Olympic Village)

The building in which we competed was another brutally featureless edifice, with what looked like school sports halls on every level. Although these were air conditioned, the system was simply unable to cope with the numbers of competitors and the audience in the galleries within such an enclosed space. Athletes competing in our form of fencing have to wear a not inconsiderable amount of equipment, with padding, protective plating and stab proof outer layers. Add an enclosed mask with a padded overlay, and I am sure you can imagine that it can get warm. So when I tell you that the audience was needing to take breaks for air and water, stripping down to base layers and fanning themselves in the heat, you can imagine how an athlete competing in a high intensity combat sport might feel; and I was relieved to be wearing a new range of lightweight equipment by boutique London manufacturer Leon Paul as part of my sponsorship package.

(Team UK & IRL event logo)

Despite these conditions the characteristic community spirit that unites participants in our art came through, and those athletes whose luggage had disappeared were equipped and attired with spare team kit from all participating groups. Even as tempers flared in the heat and pressure to advance through pool stages, the mutual respect and affection that is so characteristic of our art remained overwhelmingly evident, and some of the skill on display was breathtaking in both elegance and efficiency. At one point in the proceedings we were interrupted by the arrival of the Belarusian prime minister, with celebrities and reporters in tow, who ignored the fencers salutes with an air of studied disinterest and disappeared again just as rapidly once the cameras had stopped flashing.

(The Prime Minister of Belarus – blink and you might miss him…)

Nevertheless, it was the people of Belarus that restored my faith with their consistent consideration, openness and courtesy. I was eagerly indoctrinated into the local cuisine and culture by smiling and happy faces, one lengthy conversation sticking in my mind particularly clearly because neither I nor the elderly gentleman with whom I was conversing spoke each others’ language. And yet he kept asking questions about what he was watching, I kept answering his questions as best I could, and a certain cheerful rapport was maintained throughout.

(Video courtesy of Crossguard BV)

In conclusion, I would like to thank the organising committee of the event for coming through despite the monumental challenges this event presented, the IOC for their oversight and support, IFHEMA (International Federation for Historic Martial Arts) (http://ifhema.com) for their sponsorship, but most of all the gloriously unselfconscious people of Belarus for welcoming us with such open and warm hospitality.