A person practising with a sword, wearing an electric jacket, special gloves and masks at the Shaheed Suhrawardy Indoor Stadium, is not a very familiar sight for most people in Bangladesh. At first sight, you might be reminded of the use of swords during prehistoric times. But what a lot of people might not know is that this swordplay is an organised sport, though not very prominent in Bangladesh. The sport is called fencing.
Fencing is a relatively new sport in Bangladesh despite being one of the disciplines to have featured in every modern Olympic Games. Fencing came into being in Bangladesh in 2007, much after the neighbouring Asian countries started it. There are three forms of modern fencing- the foil, the épée, and the sabre; each of which uses a different kind of weapon and has different rules. While all the spotlight is enjoyed by cricket and football, sports like fencing and the people taking up these sports remain almost unnoticed.
The 13-year old sport in Bangladesh drew wide attention after Fatema Mujib grabbed a gold medal in the sabre event of the South Asian Games in December last year. But the sport is however still held back due to lack of competitions and funds, despite considerable talent. Fatema is acknowledged as one of the best fencers in the country, so is Mohammad Monir.
In the beginning, people used to take up fencing out of passion, not to earn a living for themselves. The professionalisation of the sport started when the Armed forces teams began to form their teams. While the facilities provided to the fencers of these teams are okay, the amatuer fencers have to face many difficulties.
Around 500 fencers are listed right now by the Bangladesh Fencing Association. Around 200 of them actively play the sport. They are mostly from defence teams like Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy, Border Guard Bangladesh and the few active civilian teams like Dhaka Commerce college, Mirpur club and Quantum team.
Ahanaf Niloy, an amatuer fencer who took up the game in 2016, pointed out that one of the big challenges is that the sport is quite expensive as one needs to spend Tk20-25 thousand to at least to buy the electric jacket, trouser, mask, sword and shoes of good quality. "I think the primary challenge every fencer has to face is getting the right equipment and practice ground. Fencing is really expensive in terms of the gears you need. Especially if you want to play the sport which will be a part of your life, you'll be needing a strong and good quality equipment."
Not everyone has the financial ability to buy these equipment. On asked about that, Sabir Islam, a fencer and former assistant coach of the Bangladesh Navy fencing team said, "In the earlier years, the Bangladesh Fencing Association used to provide equipments to the players. Then came the Bangladesh Games in 2013 where teams from Armed Forces participated. Those teams can fund their players quite well. And the players who have contracts with clubs are patronised by the clubs. But the amatuer fencers who don't have any sponsors or contracts with clubs aren't much assisted by the Association. They have to buy these equipment on their own."
Regarding this, The Business Standard tried to contact the Fencing Association but couldn't reach the officials.
Sabir believes that the lack of exposure is hurting the sport: "The players need to play at least three-four tournaments a year. But as there is almost no publicity, the Association takes little interest in hosting tournaments. The association's lack of funds is also a reason behind this. The sponsors don't find any interest to invest in this game because there is hardly any tournament held."
Tanvir Hossain, a fencer who started to play fencing in 2013 ahead of the Bangladesh Games, reckons that fencing has a good future in Bangladesh. "Now that teams are being formed by schools and colleges, we can look forward to a good future. The fencers in Bangladesh have good potential. Now proper guidance is what we need desperately."
"If players get the facilities they require and the Association has them coached by good coaches, we will soon be able to compete at international level. We have done that at the South Asian level, I believe within ten years we will secure a berth in the Olympic games as well," Tanvir stated.
Sabir Hossain, who also coached the Navy team, puts emphasis on playing more and more tournaments. "When we first participated in the tournament hosted by the South Asian Fencing Federation, we came second. We became the second runner-up even without a coach. That suggests that there is talent in abundance here. But the players don't get enough opportunities to play. There is no alternative to playing more and more. Currently only one tournament takes place in the whole year which is not going to help," Sabir signed off.
Despite many constraints, the fencers look to shine and dream of bearing the national flag of Bangladesh at the highest level.