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In France, the Force is strong with lightsaber dueling

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BEAUMONT-SUR-OISE, France (AP) — Master Yoda, dust off his French, he must.

It’s now easier than ever in France to act out “Star Wars” fantasies, because its fencing federation has borrowed from a galaxy far, far away and officially recognized lightsaber dueling as a competitive sport, granting the iconic weapon from George Lucas’ saga the same status as the foil, epee and sabre, the traditional blades used at the Olympics.

Of course, the LED-lit, rigid polycarbonate lightsaber replicas can’t slice a Sith lord in half. But they look and, with the more expensive sabers equipped with a chip in their hilt that emits a throaty electric rumble, even sound remarkably like the silver screen blades that Yoda and other characters wield in the blockbuster movies .

Plenty realistic, at least, for duelists to work up an impressive sweat slashing, feinting and stabbing in organized, 3-minute bouts. The physicality of lightsaber combat is part of why the French Fencing Federation threw its support behind the sport and is now equipping fencing clubs with lightsabers and training would-be lightsaber instructors. Like virtuous Jedi knights, the French federation sees itself as combatting a Dark Side: The sedentary habits of 21st-century life that are sickening ever-growing numbers of adults and kids .

“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” says Serge Aubailly, the federation secretary general. “It’s becoming difficult to (persuade them to) do a sport that has no connection with getting out of the sofa and playing with one’s thumbs. That is why we are trying to create a bond between our discipline and modern technologies, so participating in a sport feels natural.”

In the past, the likes of Zorro, Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers helped lure new practitioners to fencing. Now, joining and even supplanting them are Luke Skywalker , Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader.

“Cape and sword movies have always had a big impact on our federation and its growth,” Aubailly says. ”Lightsaber films have the same impact . Young people want to give it a try.”

And the young at heart.

Police officer Philippe Bondi, 49, practiced fencing for 20 years before switching to lightsaber. When a club started offering classes in Metz, the town in eastern France where he is stationed for the gendarmerie, Bondi says he was immediately drawn by the prospect of living out the love he’s had for the Star Wars universe since he saw the first film at age 7, on its release in 1977 .

He fights in the same wire-mesh face mask he used for fencing. He spent about 350 euros ($400) on his protective body armor (sturdy gloves, chest, shoulder and shin pads) and on his federation-approved lightsaber, opting for luminous green “because it’s the Jedi colors, and Yoda is my master.”

“I had to be on the good side, given that my job is upholding the law,” he said.

Bondi awoke well before dawn to make the four-hour drive from Metz to a national lightsaber tournament outside Paris this month that drew 34 competitors. It showcased how far the sport has come in a couple of years but also that it’s still light years from becoming mainstream.

The crowd was small and a technical glitch prevented the duelers’ photos, combat names and scores from being displayed on a big screen, making bouts tough to follow. But the illuminated swooshes of colored blades looked spectacular in the darkened hall. Fan cosplay as Star Wars characters added levity, authenticity and a tickle of bizarre to the proceedings, especially the incongruous sight of Darth Vader buying a ham sandwich and a bag of potato chips at the cafeteria during a break.

In building their sport from the ground up, French organizers produced competition rules intended to make lightsaber dueling both competitive and easy on the eyes.

“We wanted it to be safe, we wanted it to be umpired and, most of all, we wanted it to produce something visual that looks like the movies, because that is what people expect,” said Michel Ortiz, the tournament organizer.

Combatants fight inside a circle marked in tape on the floor. Strikes to the head or body are worth 5 points; to the arms or legs, 3 points; on hands, 1 point. The first to 15 points wins or, if they don’t get there quickly, the high scorer after 3 minutes. If both fighters reach 10 points, the bout enters “sudden death,” where the first to land a head- or body-blow wins, a rule to encourage enterprising fighters.

Blows only count if the fighters first point the tip of their saber behind them. That rule prevents the viper-like, tip-first quick forward strikes seen in fencing. Instead, the rule encourages swishier blows that are easier for audiences to see and enjoy, and which are more evocative of the duels in Star Wars. Of those, the battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace” that ends badly for the Sith despite his double-bladed lightsaber is particularly appreciated by aficionados for its swordplay.

Still nascent, counting its paid-up practitioners in France in the hundreds, not thousands, lightsaber dueling has no hope of a place in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

But to hear the thwack of blades and see them cut shapes through the air is to want to give the sport a try.

Or, as Yoda would say: “Try not. Do! Or do not. There is no try.”

Pole vaulter, 84, sets her sights on more records

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — An 84-year-old pole vaulter isn’t putting her pole down anytime soon.

Flo Filion Meiler left Thursday for the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Poland, where she’ll compete in events including the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800-meter run, pentathlon and pole vault, for which she’s the shoo-in.

The petite, energetic woman from Shelburne, Vermont, said she feels more like 70 than nearly 85.

“But you know, I do train five days a week. And when I found out I was going to compete at the worlds, I’ve been training six days a week because I knew I would really get my body in shape,” she said last week, after track and field training at the University of Vermont.

But she literally won’t have any competition in the pole vault in the championships, which runs March 24-31 in Torun, Poland. She is the only one registered in her age group, 80-84, for the sport, for which she set a world record at age 80. In the men’s pole vault, nine men are listed as competing in that age group.

Meiler said she the events she likes the best are the hurdles and the pole vault – one of the more daring track and field events, in which competitors run while carrying a fiberglass or composite pole, brace it against the ground to launch themselves over a high bar, and land on a mat.

“You really have to work at that,” she said. “You have to have the upper core and you have to have timing, and I just love it because it’s challenging.”

Meiler is used to hard work. She grew up on a dairy farm, where she helped her father with the chores, feeding the cattle and raking hay. In school, she did well at basketball, took tap and ballroom dancing, and, living near Lake Champlain, she water skied.

Meiler, who worked for 30 years as a sales representative for Herbalife nutritional supplements, and her husband, Eugene, who was a military pilot and then became a financial analyst, together competed in water skiing.

“Many times when I did water ski competition I was the only gal in my age group,” she said.

She’s a relative newcomer to pole vaulting and track and field, overall. At age 60, she was competing in doubles tennis with her husband in a qualifying year at the Vermont Senior Games when a friend encouraged her to try the long jump because competitors were needed.

“That was the beginning of my track career,” she said, standing in a room of her home, surrounded by hundreds of hanging medals. She took up pole vaulting at 65.

Athletics has helped her though some hard times, she said. She and her husband adopted three children after losing two premature biological babies and a 3-year-old. Two years ago, their son died at age 51.

And she desperately misses her training partner, a woman who started having health problems about five years ago and can no longer train. It’s tough to train alone, she said, and she hopes to find a new partner.

“She’s incredibly serious about what she does,” said Meiler’s coach, Emmaline Berg. “She comes in early to make sure she’s warmed up enough. She goes home and stretches a lot. So she pretty much structures her entire life around being a fantastic athlete, which is remarkable at any age, let alone hers.”

And it has paid off, said Berg, an assistant track coach at Vermont.

Berg herself first started following Meiler 10 years ago while she was a student at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, watching her at the annual Dartmouth Relays.

“She was like a local celebrity,” she said.

Setting a record at age 80 with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) pole vault at the USA Track and Field Adirondack Championships in Albany, New York, while her husband watched, Meiler said, was one of her happiest days.

“I was screaming, I was so happy,” she said.

The overall world record for women’s pole vaulting is 16.6 feet (5.6 meters), according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Meiler turns 85 in June, when she’ll head to the National Senior Games in New Mexico.

That will put her in a new age group, in which she hopes to set even more records.

Meiler’s athletic achievements are remarkable and something to be celebrated, said Dr. Michael LaMantia, director of the University of Vermont Center on Aging.

Pole vaulting clearly isn’t for everyone of her age, but in general, activity should be, LaMantia said.

“She can serve as a role model for other seniors,” he said.

Amateur boxing president steps aside during IOC inquiry

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With Olympic boxing under investigation by the IOC, the president of the sport’s governing body said on Friday he was stepping aside to let an interim leader take charge.

Gafur Rakhimov sai d he was not resigning as AIBA president, however, and did not call for new elections.

Rakhimov’s status on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list as an alleged heroin trafficker is part of an inquiry by an International Olympic Committee-appointed panel.

The panel will update the IOC executive board next week in Lausanne, Switzerland. AIBA could be derecognized by IOC members in June.

The IOC halted planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic boxing tournaments and blocked AIBA officials from contacting organizers in Japan.

“The allegations against me were fabricated and based on politically motivated lies,” Rakhimov said. “I trust that the truth will prevail. Nevertheless, I have always said that I would never put myself above boxing, and as president, I have a duty to do everything in my power to serve our sport and our athletes.”

Under AIBA statutes, an interim president is picked from among the five vice-presidents, who include several Rakhimov supporters. The executive committee is due to meet by telephone this weekend. The interim leader can serve only a maximum 365 days before fresh elections, however, meaning that arrangement can’t last through to the Tokyo Olympics.

When Rakhimov was elected last year, his supporters pushed for a plan to allow the president to step aside while still retaining key influence and being able to return at any time, but that was defeated.

It’s not clear if Rakhimov’s departure would be enough to calm the IOC, which has also criticized AIBA over how fights are judged, anti-doping measures, and its debts.

The IOC could try to host an Olympic boxing tournament without AIBA, and some national boxing officials have tried to form a group which could help the IOC stage the event.