Cultural Triangulation: The Triathlon And Its Sport Context

2015 Longpoint Triathlon Winners

2015 Longpoint Triathlon Winners

Earlier this year, I started occasionally hearing some odd things from newer HEMA people about Wiktenauer and HEMA's source material. It bothered me so much that I wrote a relatively long post on my private Facebook wall about the origins of Wiktenauer, why it was needed, and how it morphed into what it is today as the most valuable HEMA resource online. I think it's time to address the Longpoint Longsword Triathlon in a similar way to realign some ideas that we want to promote, inform newer competitors as to the context and need, and to combat some conjecture coming from outside the competitive HEMA scene.

Back in the olden days, meaning 5-10 years ago, the idea that competitions would take the H out of HEMA may have been a majority opinion, at least in the US. This was even an opinion held by Longpoint Director Jake Norwood and myself until around 2010 at the latest. The first few competitions in the US were dirty, and I would have agreed then that, except for one or two guys in any given competition, you didn't see much of what we want to see from the sources displayed. Every hit, no matter the quality, type, or location, was given one point, and matches were to a set number of points or time.

We needed this. The part of the HEMA community that competed in the US progressed in skill significantly faster between 2010 and 2012 than that same group of people had progressed from 2004 to 2010. Today, we see the upper half of competitors consistently pulling off techniques and concepts from the manuals they work from in competitions. It's still dirty, because fighting is dirty and, as they say, the other team is getting paid to win, too. But it's there. To deny this is to all but admit that you only want to see artificial, partially cooperative drilling or sparring.

There are certainly risks, however. Tournaments are games, and poorly designed games can be easily broken or exploited by unintended behaviors. Over the years, Longpoint, Swordfish, and other event organizers have developed new rule sets, tweaked old ones, and progressed down the path of developing a game that brings out the kind of fighting that we want to see. At Longpoint specifically we update our rules with the goal in mind that the best way to exploit our rules should be to fence technically and correctly.

Do we think this is enough? No. Not at all. Fencing tournaments have their own downsides. Judging is a problem, so the rule sets can't be quite as robust as we would like. Blunt steel swords, while sexy and useful, do a poor job of replicating the bind of sharp steel, changing the usefulness of a surprising number of techniques. While injury can still happen, fighters are often able to rely on their gear to protect them, and are perhaps willing to take some risks they wouldn't take without that protection.

Back in 2012, along with introducing the Longpoint rule set to reward technical fencing, we instituted a cutting tournament with Mike Edelson, who later came up with the idea of the Triathlon. We were the first HEMA event in the US to do this, and we did it with one goal in mind: Promote the handling of and training with sharps within our community. In the past 3 years, we've directly and indirectly put sharps in the hands of more fencers for the purposes of training than we've ever seen before. We've stopped using a loaner sword for our cutting competition, encouraging individuals and groups to acquire their own sharps, further promoting accurate training within clubs. The competition itself, while very useful, is not the main goal of the competition. It is a demonstration and validation of us reaching our goal.

Originally, the third event in the Triathlon was Ringen. In 2014, we introduced Paired Technique to the triathlon as an alternative to Ringen, despite some push back on the idea due to more conjecture. Between the last two events, we've moved further towards replacing Ringen completely in the Triathlon with PT, which will be the case for 2016. Paired Technique is a 'forms' competition, and like the other two competitions in the triathlon, it comes with it's own problems and risks. The main purpose of this competition is not to be the fastest pair, although it is also that. It is not to the the prettiest or the smoothest pair, although it is also that. The main purpose of this competition is to reward fighters for working with the source material.

At the start of each year, we announce the source that the PT competition will be using for that year, and we do not release which specific sections it will be using until we near the event. Yes, this means that sometimes a majority of people will not already be familiar with that source. Yes, this means that some people will have to spend more time on the H in HEMA than they would have otherwise if they want to succeed. This is purposeful. We want to recognize and reward people for spending time with the sources.

The Longpoint Triathlon is a representation of a well rounded Longsword fighter. In the US, due to our initiative, it is very difficult to gain a lot of respect by simply doing well in an open longsword fencing competition. To ensure that you gain the respect you might want, you have to also demonstrate that you can handle a sharp sword. We are hoping that Paired Technique achieves similar success, requiring that a fighter has to demonstrate knowledge of the sources we all love to gain the respect they may desire. The Triathlon is purposefully the highest honor at Longpoint. At our awards dinner Saturday night, Jake brings the top three or four Triathlon winners up in front of 250+ fighters and friends, salutes them, and tells them, speaking for the whole room, that they are what we all aspire to be.

Are there other ways to achieve this kind of triangulation and promote a competitive culture that retains a respect for the art for many, many years to come? Sure. And I'm excited to see them. 

So, given all of this, I take it kind of personally when people who do not regularly compete talk about how competitions may be corrupting HEMA, or how the competitive side of the community may have to split from the artful side of the community because they have different supposed goals. As a general rule, including all of the people I know who consistently win and run these competitions, we are also the artful side of the community. We are not separating ourselves. In fact, we are putting a lot of effort specifically into keeping the competitive spirit and the art one and the same. We spend our time running these events for a love of the art, and we encourage all of our attendees to hold these same ideals.

Ben Michels
Longpoint, Event Manager
Wiktenauer, Founder
Broken Plow Western Martial Arts