France’s fencing federation has officially recognised lightsabre duelling as a competitive sport, granting the famed weapon from the Star Wars saga the same status as the foil, epee and sabre.
The LED-lit, rigid polycarbonate lightsabre replicas look and even sound remarkably like the silver screen blades that Yoda and other characters wield in George Lucas’s blockbuster movies.
The more expensive sabres are equipped with a chip in their hilt that emits a throaty electric rumble.
Duellists slash, feint and stab in organised three-minute bouts.
The physicality of lightsabre combat is part of the reason why the French Fencing Federation threw its support behind the sport and is now equipping fencing clubs with lightsabres and training would-be lightsabre instructors.
Like virtuous Jedi knights, the French federation sees itself as combating a Dark Side: The sedentary habits of 21st-century life that are affecting the health of ever-growing numbers of adults and children.
“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” said 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,” Mr Aubailly said.
“Lightsabre films have the same impact. Young people want to give it a try.”
And the young at heart.
Police officer Philippe Bondi, 49, practised fencing for 20 years before switching to lightsabre.
When a club started offering classes in Metz, the town in eastern France where he is stationed for the gendarmerie, Mr Bondi said he was immediately drawn by the prospect of living out the love he has had for the Star Wars universe since he saw the first film at the age of seven, on its release in 1977.
He fights in the same wire-mesh face mask he used for fencing.
Mr Bondi spent about 350 euros (£300) on his protective body armour (sturdy gloves, chest, shoulder and shin pads) and on his federation-approved lightsabre, opting for luminous green “because it’s the Jedi colours, and Yoda is my master”.
“I had to be on the good side, given that my job is upholding the law,” he said.
Mr Bondi awoke well before dawn to make the four-hour drive from Metz to a national lightsabre tournament outside Paris this month that drew 34 competitors.
It showcased how far the sport has come in a few years but also that it is still light years from becoming mainstream.
The crowd was small and a technical glitch prevented the duellers’ photos, combat names and scores from being displayed on a big screen, making bouts difficult to follow.
But the illuminated swooshes of coloured blades looked spectacular in the darkened hall.
Fans dressed as Star Wars characters added levity, authenticity and an element of the bizarre to proceedings, especially the incongruous sight of Darth Vader buying a ham sandwich and a bag of crisps at the cafeteria during a break.
In building their sport from the ground up, French organisers produced competition rules intended to make lightsabre duelling both competitive and easy on the eye.
“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 organiser.
Combatants fight inside a circle marked in tape on the floor.
Strikes to the head or body are worth five points; to the arms or legs, three points; on hands, one point.
The first to 15 points wins or, if they do not get there quickly, the high scorer after three 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 sabre 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.
Counting its paid-up practitioners in France in the hundreds, not thousands, lightsabre duelling 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.