After reading the link on the Amtgard Facebook group about Ronda Rousey, I got to thinking about Amtgard's convention wisdom on female fighters. Scan the comments—everyone says there's no meaningful difference between men and women when it comes to Amtgard fighting, and there's no physical reason why women can't be just as good as our top warlords. I'm not sure a single poster disagreed with the convention wisdom, either. That's how strongly Amtgard believes in this.
That got me thinking. I've already wondered if there's something different between men and women because of how skill gap seems to drive away more women than men, which is to say women experience the problem to a greater degree. There's also the matter of the results we see in front of us: no women winning kingdom tournaments anywhere in the game. Maybe our conventional wisdom is wrong, and maybe sexual dimorphism has more of an effect on Amtgard fighting than we realize.
So here's some spitballing in article form. Forgive me for mixing units, but my head is full of kilos and ounces and inches. I'm also equating weight with strength. Whatever. Just bear with me.
It goes without saying that men are stronger than women. There will be outliers in either direction, but the average man is stronger than 999 out of every 1000 women. Men have superior grip strength, stronger upper bodies, stronger shoulders, more powerful forearms, and so on. They're also built differently, having broader shoulders and flatter chests. Does this matter in Amtgard? The chest problem certainly matters to some fighters—more than a few women have opted for toboggan shields over planks because it fits their bodies, and more than a few notice that moving anything across the body even a little runs into a barrier or two. It feels safe to assume that Amtgard adopted the plank shield as a standard for a competitive reasons, so these morphological differences might matter... but I want to focus, for this article, on the more subtle question of whether strength and power themselves mean anything.
It is often said that Amtgard is not a game about power or strength. I think that statement is true around the edges in that raw mass doesn't translate into fighting ability where men are concerned—a little man can become a better fighter than a strong one, and this happens enough that it doesn't surprise us—but it doesn't feel true when it comes to the more subtle applications of physical strength, those being how strength influences control, twitch speed, and so forth. That sort of strength is necessary. I also wonder if it's a true statement where women are concerned.
So: does power and strength grant an advantage in Amtgard? If yes, then we can begin to ask if that puts female fighters at an inherent disadvantage. And once we ask that, we can start to ask if that disadvantage is (for all practical situations) insurmountable.
To do this, I looked at a few other martial arts where power isn't supposed to be key.
Because of the Ronda Rousey news, my first bit of research was into judo. The theory was that judo might be a sport where being bigger and stronger isn't an advantage. This theory died a quick death. From 1968-1984, the Olympics had an open weight category for judo. In every year but one, all the medals were were won by heavyweight competitors. The only exception was 1980, where the gold medalist was a light heavyweight weighing a mere 205 lbs. So much for that idea.
I then turned to fencing, where power is supposed to be meaningless. I found this thesis, which lightly suggests that strength does matter; the focus in the document is more on height, with the conclusion (meaningful to Amtgard women) that a shorter fighter has some disadvantages to overcome. Great, and useful for my pondering since it suggests we might have similar problems in Amtgard—but I'm looking at strength, power, mass. I also peered into the Woman Fencer, a book by a husband-and-wife fencing couple, and found this quote: "Your foil doesn't know if you are female and or male ... Fencing is not about power." One might adapt the quote to say that the foil doesn't know if you are strong or not. True? Not sure. That entire chapter is worth a read, but it focuses so much on giving advance on how to overcome the strength of male fighters that it's hard to not walk away with the idea that power matters, and that being a man gives you a leg up in fencing.
So I turned to the real world, grabbed fencing results from the last four Olympics, and ran some numbers.
Before I go on, a few terms:
A foil is a light, thrust-only weapon where you only strike the torso and you need right-of-way to make attacks. It's typically 11 ounces or so. An epee is a heavier thrust weapon, somewhere around 27 ounces. No right of way rules, and you can stab the body.
A saber is most like an Amtgard sword. It's 14 ounces, 35 inches, you can cut and stab, and there are right-of-way rules.
For comparison, a Warlord Sports Omni weighs 8.5 ounces, a WLS Crossgamer is 12 ounces and as long as a saber (Edit: I've been told these are 14 ounces, 35", just like a saber), and the Spatha is 13 ounces and a bit shorter than a saber.
With the men, there's not much to see. They're all about six feet tall, they're almost all lean (one guy is 108 kilos, but he's the only one), and the data looks, at first glance, to be all over the map. It's hard to see if strength gives an advantage. But I did notice a few interesting trends.
First, saber champions are on average three centimeters taller than the silver medalists, who are on average two centimeters taller than the bronze medalists. I also noticed that the foil, where there are rules on right of way and it's all about stabs to the body, tended to favor lighter men. The foil data is interesting but not really useful, since the foil doesn't really resemble Amtgard fighting.
So I turned more closely to the saber and sorted medalists by weight. The three heaviest saber medalists have two silvers and a gold. The three lightest saber medalists have two bronzes and a silver. The average in the top fifty percent is silver to gold. The average in the bottom fifty percent is silver to bronze. This is narrow stuff, but it suggests that being a few pounds stronger is meaningful. (Interestingly, I found no relation between weight and foil medals, and a negative correlation between weight and epee medals.) I also noticed that the average gold medalist in men's saber weighs a little more than the average of all saber medals. Seems like being stronger is a small advantage for men.
Now for the women. Women's saber has only been around since 2004, so I am missing a bit of data, but there's a clear trend. For the women, I am going to look at all the fencing events, because I think it's meaningful. From the men, we learned that strength doesn't matter as much for the foil—an 11 ounce thrusting weapon where there are clear rules of right of way and the torso is the only target. When it comes to women, the average weight of a foil medalist is the lowest of all three weapon types, just under 57 kilograms. So the weapon that requires the least strength has the smallest fighters. This is suggestive so far. The next up is the epee, which is a heavier thrusting weapon. The medalists in this event average 63.2 kilos, and the average weight for a gold medalist is 65.5 kilos. This tells me that epee requires more strength, and strength is a small advantage in the epee.
Then we have saber. The data here is a bit skewed because a small underdog fencer took gold in 2012, but supports my hypothesis even with that skew: the average saber fighter is 67.4 kilograms, the heaviest of all three categories, and nearly 11 kilos more than the average female foil fencer. When it comes to saber, it seems clear that strength matters for women. Even more, the average saber champion—again, even with the tiny outlier—comes in at 69.7 kilograms. So not only does saber require more strength than the other two categories, being stronger than average is an advantage for female saber fighters.
Turning to the medal standings, just as with the men, I get this trend: the three heaviest female saber fighters have two golds and a silver, and the three lightest have two bronzes and a gold. The average for the top half is slightly more silver-to-gold than it was for the men. The average for the bottom half is slightly more silver-to-bronze than it was for the men.
From this data, I feel like we can claim that strength is an advantage in saber fighting for both men and women, and is significantly more important for women, where the lightest saber medalist is still heavier than the average female foil fighter—and the biggest foil fighter is lighter than the average saber fighter. Simply put, strong women medal in saber, and little ones medal in foil. Yes, it's not deterministic—that 57 kilogram saber fighter is the smallest medalist in that category ever, and she won the gold—but it is clearly strongly predictive.
At the top levels of Olympic fencing, being stronger is an advantage. Maybe it's the same in Amtgard. The difference is men and women compete together in Amtgard. So does it matter that men and women don't compete together in Olympic fencing? Well, let's see.
Assuming men and women have identical morphology (they don't), the heaviest female saber medalist would be right in the middle of male saber medalists—exactly average. But given the advantages men have in upper body strength relative to an equal-weight female fighter, and given that we've demonstrated that strength matters in fencing, it seems more likely that the strongest female fencer would be less than average. Add in some average percentages based on typical muscle mass for men and women, and the strongest female saber medalist is weaker than the weakest male medalist.
If strength matters, then it surely matters that the strongest female saber fencer is weaker than every male saber medalist, even ones smaller than her. And it surely matters that none of the three weakest men has gold. Their average medal is bronze, and she is not as strong as them.
Aye, any fighter can beat any other fighter. But the question is whether any fighter can do it with enough consistency to do better than bronze. The Olympic results suggest that it's not particularly likely, even if you're the strongest female fencer.
If the best a phenomenal female fighter in Amtgard can reasonably achieve—the female equivalent of a Brennon, a Lief, or a Spyn—is third place... well, we have an award for that.
5th-level Order of the Warrior.
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