By Daniel Bases
LONDON (Reuters) - OK, so it's full of brooding Frenchmen and Italian drama queens, but no ordinary spectator is ever going to 'get' a sport decided by the flash of a blade almost invisible to the naked eye - right?
Not if the organisers of London's Olympic fencing competition have anything to do with it. A sport that has long cherished its roots in the bygone duelling habits of Europe's nobility may never be the same again.
Pulsating music from English rock bands Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles pumps up the London ExCeL fencing hall between bouts, announcers introduce the fencers as if they were boxers, and uninitiated spectators hear expert commentary through radio headphones.
In short, London's organisers seem to have taken it upon themselves to bring fencing to the masses.
And if that means dramatic lighting and uplifting music and videos - well, why not?
"We wanted to educate the spectators, we wanted to inspire then and we wanted to entertain them," said George Meredith-Hardy, ExCel's lead producer for sport presentation.
For the most part, fencers and spectators seem to love it.
"It is magnificent. It is wonderful," gushed Laura Flessel-Colovic, France's 'grande dame' of Olympic fencing with three medals from three Games.
"When we start to enter the arena to the music beat, where you hear and see all of these people cheering, the colours, we are in heaven. It is really, really a great event."
And it is far cry even from the last Olympics in Beijing, never mind the cold, cavernous gymnasiums with hard wooden seats where most fencing competitions are fought out in front of a hundred spectators.
IT'S NOT A FIGHT
Of course, some in the sport learned to love fencing when the Games were on a smaller scale and amateurism was the norm.
But even they like the lights and noise. It's just the finer points of etiquette they object to. Like the way the announcer starts each contest by calling "Referees, start the fight!".
To a fencer, a fight is definitely not a fight, but a 'bout'.
"Fencing is a traditional sport in Hungary," said Jeno Kamuti, chief of Hungary's fencing team and winner of silver medals for the foil in 1968 and 1972.
"I do not 'fight' my opponent, I don't want to hurt them. We are playing a sport, not doing battle."
If that point is lost on the audience, it has not prevented fencing winning plenty of converts among the 7,000 spectators who pack the venue for each session - most of whom failed to get tickets for more mainstream sports.
Most stamp along with gusto when the official London 2012 song, Survival by Muse, builds to its crescendo, accompanied by screen footage of great sporting moments.
And to a man, woman and child they yell "Allez!" or "I-TA-LI-A!" or "KOR-REE-AA!" at every clash of blades and every flash of lights along the side of the fencing piste that shows a point has been scored.
"It's a big party," said Federico Simonetto, an Italian medical student from Bassano.
He knew little about fencing when he arrived - which didn't stop him painting his face in Italian colours - but ended the session desperate to get tickets to see his country in the women's team foil final.
"I was really surprised," said Anita Eels, who brought her family, new to fencing, from Berkhamsted northwest of London after failing to get their first-choice tickets.
"You would think it is something of a distraction for the athletes with all the music, and how could they talk to their coaches to communicate? But it was great for the spectators."
The music before her bout and during the breaks didn't stop Italy's Elisa Di Francisca from winning gold in women's individual and team foil.
"The fans were great. It was like having Rome in the room with us," she said. "I like the music. Not a distraction. When you want to win, nothing is a distraction."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)