Well I guess this is the “hot potato” of the HEMA community! I am sure that a lot of other people before me and surely a lot of others after me will deal with the subject.

First of all I have to let you know that I never participated in any tournament due to restrictions of the previous association I was member of (you know who!) . Still I am planning to do it if my finances and my 44 year old bones will allow me. I have sparred with dozens of people all these years of various size and ability in order to learn and enjoy our art.

The reason for dealing with this issue now is because we are planning to organize international HEMA events in Greece in the near future. Furthermore the spark which ignited my thoughts was LONGPOINT 2014. I read comments on FB about how dissatisfied were some people with tournament rules this year but I also read the organizer’s reply on it: that rules have to be tested in order to be abolished. I completely agree with this statement: no matter if the rules of LONGPOINT were good or bad, they were ideas tested and partially proved. HEMA as a community is very young to this “sport tournament” thing therefore mistakes are allowed. If you do not try things you will never understand if they work or not. So LONGPOINT organizers did the right thing: they tested them! If the result is good or bad is not for me to judge since I was not there and definitely is not the main focus of this article. Plus I want to share thoughts with you that I have the last couple of years

Let’s see things from the beginning: HEMA as a sport. If we want to make HEMA recognized as a sport on a worldwide scale we have to make modifications on the martial form of the art and to transform it in a competitive sport.

Which are the main factors that we have to keep in mind during this? The following three:

1. SAFETY. All fighting sports, extreme or not, have safety of their athletes as the number 1 rule. Think it like this: if you want to see people excel in our tournaments they must start their training young like other martial arts, e.g. by the age of 6! For us is even more difficult because we use weapons but still there is always a way. Therefore in order to convince parents to bring their kids to the training hall you must guarantee their kid’s safety. This applies to adults too, promising them that they can compete in a safe environment with minimal injuries.

Safety is divided into:

  • Protective equipment
  • Weapons
  • Rules

For the first two there has been done a lot of progression the last 5 years which allows us to fight with a high level of safety. Adjustments and improvements will continue but I think we are in a very good path of achieving top notch equipment on both concerning safety. I am sure that most of you have noticed the late interest of big fencing companies in what we do and their HEMA lines of equipment….

But rules is what I am talking about here….before I go into further detail I will list the other 2 factors which I think are important for “sportifing” a martial art:

2. SCORING
How clear are the valid points and how accurate and just is the scoring system.

3. SPECTACLE
How spectators perceive our tournaments. Do they enjoy themselves? Do they find the scoring system confusing? How do they perceive our fights? Do they have favorite weapon combinations e.t.c.?

Both of them have direct connection with rules. Number 2 has also judges and referees involved but still is connected to the rules. Number 3 is a whole issue by itself depending if as HEMA we care about spectators but let’s put it aside for now….

And here is the big question: Do we need international rules like other sports? So a fighter from any country can participate in any tournament worldwide without having to learn different rules? And how much of the martial spirit of the art are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve this?

With all those great tournaments happening in Europe and America I think we must concentrate seriously on this. In my opinion there are two options for a common ground: either we set up international rules common for all OR at least we set some common rules as a core and allow everyone to have it modified as they wish but still retain the main core. I think the big organizations and federations must come to an understanding on this. It will take a lot of time-3-5 years or something - to standardize a core set of rules on various weapons but if there is will and desire to work it can be achieved as a lot of other martial arts did before us.

This is definitely a lot of hard work if we are willing to do it. First we have to decide on the main weapons (specialty weapons can have the rule which each tournament organizer sets by himself), which by itself it is a huge discussion. Except if we decide for example first on 3 basic weapons (like Olympic fencing ) and then add another one every year or so…

Then it is the rule set itself: the MAIN thing. I know that each one of us has his own ideas on how rules must be: e.g. I think there must be no point on double hits and fencers must be penalized if they do it a third time e.t.c. But still, I think that if the Associations, Coalitions, Alliances and Federations prepare a focused survey for all their members including suggestions, then process and filter the provided information and sit together to discuss it with the board of directors of every major institution , I am almost sure that the main core of a rule set for each chosen weapon can be formed.

This will also help instructors all around the world on the coaching of their athletes. Because it is really different training for "war or duel to the death" than training for a competition with a specific rule set.

Will this eventually reduce the martial aspect of our art like it happened with Olympic Fencing compared to Classical? Or Olympic Judo versus traditional ? Not necessarily if it is done with keeping this parameter in mind and from people who are doing this a long time and have a passion for it! The martial aspect will be surely reduced but it can still have a strong presence! e.g. someone suggested to make longsword a conventional weapon by using “The right of way” (if your opponent attacks you either have to parry or void and counter attack in a second tempo) like they do in foil, saber fencing and canne de combat. Ok personally I think it is fun and makes some sense but it takes the unexpected factor out of the game completely minimizing the martial spirit a lot plus what happens when you close distance and come to grappling or hit someone in the face with the pommel? ….others may disagree though…

Then it is the turn of the referees and judges. As I said we are still young into this whole thing so please people do not criticize them harshly! They are also in the process of learning and a main set of international rules will help them to be more accurate and just! (Except if you bribe them LOL)

But before we start working on an accepted and valid rule set and scoring system we have to take into account two very important things:

  • How much of the martial aspect do we want to sacrifice in favor of sport?
  • Do we really want to make HEMA a sport with worldwide acceptance and popularity?

And I saved a funny story for the end: A couple of years ago I entered our training hall and announced to everybody that tonight we will not do our usual sparring but instead we will do games using a point system and the winner will receive a great prize (I did not tell them what). Everyone was thrilled and they started fighting the pools. I was the judge and referee and another instructor was the score keeper.

Result: They fenced extremely bad! Why? Because: a) They only cared about the point given and b) I gave them a lousy rule set!

(By the way I later explained that there was no prize included since it was a test to see reactions and behaviors).

I hope I did not bore you too much!

George Zacharopoulos
Academy of Hoplomachia , Greece

George Zacharopoulos
Preceptor of Academy of Hoplomachia
Co-author of the book "The knightly Art of the sword -Hoplomachia in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe" (language: Greek)
General Secretary of HFHEMA
Member of HEMAC & The HEMA Alliance