Zorros in the making

(Left) Khalid al Droushi, 11, and Ali al Raisi, 9, face-off in a duel (V K Shafeer/Muscat Daily)

In a nondescript practise hall in Seeb Stadium, the dreams of a bunch of swashbuckling kids are taking shape. Kitted out in full gear - newly imported netted masks and metal vests and shiny, electric foils from the US - the enthusiastic children fall in line and practise their pose and attacks as they await instructions from their coach.

Said al Barwani has brought his 11 year old son Ahmed to his first class. Barwani isn't quite sure but suspects his son fancies himself as Don Diego de la Vega after catching a rerun of 1998's The Mask of Zorro starring Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas on TV. He's happy, anyhow, that Ahmed is trying out a new sport. "Everybody plays football... everybody is a footballer in Oman," he says.

In the other end of the hall, another parent - Maryam al Toqi - watches her nine year old son Ali practise. He's been attending the programme for a month now and can't wait to reach Seeb Stadium after school, suit up and fence.  "He's picking up the sport fast," she says. She believes the sport is even helping him concentrate on his studies.

Maryam also enrolled her 12 year old daughter Leen in the programme when it started last month following a social media blitz that caught the fancy of mothers like her. The ball was set rolling with the formation of the Oman Fencing Committee (OFC) in January consequent to a ministerial decision followed by the opening of its first Fencing Training Centre in Seeb Stadium. According to Khalid al Shuaibi, president of OFC, the centre is the first- of-its-kind in Oman aimed at encouraging participation and promoting excellence at all levels of fencing from rookie to world-class competitors.

To help achieve that objective, OFC launched the Young Fencers Programme in April with a campaign, targeting mothers like Maryam, and school students through a tie-up with the Ministry of Education in efforts to introduce the sport to the country. The programme offers training to Omani youngsters aged nine to 18 in the three disciplines of fencing - foil, epee and sabre - for no fee. "Everything, including equipment, is free. All we're asking for is commitment," says Rumaitha al Busaidi, a committee member of OFC.

Central to OFC's efforts is coach Hisham Karchoud. A Tunisian, he claimed his country championships and numerous regional and international epee competitions. He was the Tunisian and later Qatari national coach before being roped in for OFC's ambitious plans. Fencing is gaining popularity in the Arab world, he informs, to which Rumaitha adds that the response to the Young Fencers Programme has been overwhelming with children now being waitlisted for the basic training. 

 In the tie-up with the Ministry of Education, OFC conducted a selection process in schools to choose children for basic training by testing for natural skills including agility, coordination and speed. "We also see if the child is afraid of the sword and their initiative to attack," Karchoud explains. 

Ninety-minute training sessions are offered thrice a week - 4pm to 5.30pm (beginners) and 5.30pm to 7pm at Seeb Stadium on all days of the week barring Friday. There are 50 children in the first batch starting 4pm currently undergoing basic training in foil, 20 in epee and three in sabre. Twelve fencers have been identified for more intense and advanced training to take forward OFC's medal dreams. Karchoud believes Oman will be on the podium in Gulf-level fencing competitions in two years.

That may sound overambitious but witnessing the enthusiasm of young fencers like Khalid al Droushi is reassuring. The 11 year old is the picture of supreme confidence and nerves of steel as he steadies his hand and thrusts his sword. Wouldn't he rather be chasing around and kicking a ball instead? "No, I don’t like football. I like to play fast sports," he says, applying a logic only children can understand and almost offended by the question.

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