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The International Journal of the History of Sport Vol. 24, No. 10, October 2007, 1281 1301

The Puliti Affair and the 1924 Paris Olympics: Geo-Political Issues, National Pride and Fencing TraditionsThierry Terret, Cecile Ottogalli-Mazzacavallo and Jean Saint-Martin

During the Paris Olympic Games of July 1924, there were a series of incidents in the fencing competition that became known as the Puliti affair. At the centre of the troubles was the Italian Oreste Puliti. The affair had to be discussed by the jury dhonneur recently set up by the IOC. Both the IOC and the International Federation were concerned with this issue for four more years. This article uses the Puliti affair to discuss several aspects of nationalism in the mid-1920s: the growing tensions between Fascist Italy and democracies such as Hungary and France, the specic Olympic status of fencing challenged in Paris after three centuries of confrontation between the French and Italian schools of fencing, and ongoing tensions between the IOC and the international federations. Finally, the press perceptions of the incident in various countries are briey discussed.

During the 1920s, the need to reconstruct Europe stimulated a growing nationalism in the countries, which had been particularly involved in the First World War. [1] International sports competitions, [2] including the Olympic Games which, according to Alfred E. Senn, were still in their formative years, played a role in this process. [3] During the eighth Olympic Games, which took place in Paris between 5 and 27 July 1924, some sports were more closely tied to national cultures than others, and thus had greater power to rouse patriotic feelings. In fencing, for instance, the weight of national heritage characterized countries such as Italy, Hungary and France. For centuries, these three countries had developed rival schools of masters and specic techniques; sport was merely a new eld to assert their supremacy.

Thierry Terret, Cecile Ottogalli-Mazzacavallo and Jean Saint-Martin, University of Lyon, France. Correspondence to: terret@univ-lyon1.fr ISSN 0952-3367 (print)/ISSN 1743-9035 (online) 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/09523360701505429


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In this context, various unpleasant incidents occurred during the Olympic fencing tournament of 1924. The rst took place on 30 June, during the nal round-robin pool in the team foil event between France and Italy. The referee awarded a point to the Frenchman Lucien Gaudin but the point was claimed by the Italian Aldo Boni, cheered on by the frenzied Italian spectators. When the referee held to his decision, the Italian team left in a huff to the sound of the Fascist hymn rising from the bleachers. The whole team were disqualied, and when they refused to apologize ofcially, they were scratched from the individual foil event scheduled for the next day. The hostile atmosphere continued during the other events, and reached its climax a few days later during the individual sabre event, in what the 22 July issue of The Times described as Italian violence. The focus of the conict was Oreste Puliti, the leading Italian fencer, who was disqualied by one of the Hungarian judges, Georges de Kovacs. [4] The protagonists took the whole thing very seriously, turning to the IOCs recently set-up jury dhonneur. The international Fencing Federation also stepped in, further complicating diplomatic relations, and the Puliti Affair was not settled until 1928. In this article, the Puliti Affair is used to analyse several aspects of nationalism in sport during the immediate post-war period. [5] First, the affair must be placed in its political context at a time when Italian society was moving towards Fascism. Second, the specic nature of fencing as a traditionally national sport must be addressed for a better understanding of certain underlying issues. Third, the IOCs position was revelatory of the tensions between it and the international federations, and of the difculty of nding a diplomatic balance in view of the individual national attitudes involved. Finally, the Puliti affair involved men of honour, for whom values of class and masculinity were crucial: their behaviour illustrates how strongly sport was linked to gender and culture in the making of Europe at the beginning of the 1920s. [6] It was precisely in response to nationalistic tensions and incidents at the 1920 Olympic Games that the British proposed solutions to curb unsportsmanlike conduct, including violence, among contestants, leading to the IOC discussing the subject in 1923. [7] A proposal to appoint the IOC executive committee as a jury dhonneur was put forward. [8] The name chosen for this new structure was obviously rooted in the code of chivalry shared by the IOC aristocratic members. The jury dhonneur was created, rst and foremost, to provide an administrative framework for settling all non-technical structural disputes. [9] It complemented the juries proposed by the international federations, namely the eld juries that refereed and managed the events themselves and the juries of appeal for each discipline that ruled on any technical components or sporting matters that the eld jury was unable to deal with. [10] The Swiss citizen Godefroy de Blonay presided over the IOC executive committee from 1921 to 1925, with the Belgian Henri de Baillet-Latour as vice-president. The other members were Pierre de Coubertin and the Marquis Melchior de Polignac from France, Siged Edstrom from Sweden and Jiri Guth-Jarkowsky from Czechoslovakia, who gave up his seat to Reginald Kentish (Great Britain) for the 1924 games. In their

The Puliti Affair and the 1924 Paris Olympics


capacity as jury dhonneur, these six people had to settle the most serious disputes that occurred during those Parisian events. Some complaints emanated from the boxing and athletic events, but it was fencing that required most of the jurys energy, especially from 1924 to 1927 in what the committee called the Puliti affair. The aim of this article is to analyse both the political and the cultural faces of nationalism which were reected in this affair. However, complicating this rst and central analytical level were others, in which sport institutions on the one hand and the ofcers code of honour on the other were involved. But before analysing them, let examine the facts.

The Puliti Affair in Four Acts Act One: Colombes, 16 July 1924 The preliminaries for the individual sabre events took place on 16 July. Out of the 47 contestants in the running, 28 qualied for the seminals on the same day. The Italian Puliti and the Frenchman Ducret performed particularly brilliantly that day. The mood was tense. As the spectators and contestants were leaving the Colombes stadium to go back to Paris, an altercation broke out. One of the Hungarian fencers, Alexandre (Sandor) Posta (the future Olympic champion in that event), overheard an exchange between Puliti and Santelli about the refereeing of his countryman qualied for the semi-nals, which took place that same day. Twelve qualied for the nal held the following day. The Italian Puliti and the Frenchman Ducret performed particularly brilliantly Kovacs. [11] Posta intervened, and the incident degenerated rapidly into insults and threats. The molehill started to grow into a mountain the next day when Jules de Musza, co-president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and an IOC member, ofcially notied Pierre de Coubertin. [12] In his letter, he reported the scene in which the Hungarian fencers saw their teammate Posta and his wife shouted at by 30 or 40 Olympic contestants of Italian nationality. He also said that the Italians had insulted all the Hungarian fencers who, because they were all ofcers, now had an obligation to defend their honour once they returned to Hungary. He spoke of the noble character of the Olympic Games, the mutual loyalty of nations and the interest of the Hungarian contestants good name, and ofcially called for the IOC executive committee to settle the matter in its capacity as jury dhonneur. Act Two: Colombes, 17 July The nal took place on 17 July, in an atmosphere that was even more charged than the day before. Of the 12 qualifying fencers, four were Italian. [13] According to tradition, they fenced rst. [14] As they did, it became obvious that Bertinetti, Sarrochi and Bini were not taking the offensive with their best contender, Puliti, who came out of these bouts unfatigued and with a number of hits in his favour that was


T. Terret et al.

above the average. The jury president, Frenchman Adrien Lajoux, denounced the manoeuvre forbidden by the rules and the Hungarian judge, Kovacs, threatened to withdraw if nothing were done about it. [15] Puliti then allegedly made some threatening remarks against Kovacs, [16] which were overheard by Santelli, who immediately informed the Hungarian. Kovacs lodged a complaint, leading to a meeting of the jury of appeal, presided over by Georges Van Rossem. The members included the Hungarian marquis Pallavicini and the Frenchman Rene Lacroix. After deliberating several hours on the two accusations levelled against the Italian (the cheating and the threats), the jury nally decided to exclude Puliti from the individual sabre events. Out of solidarity, the other Italians withdrew. [17] The jury then decided to ignore the bouts completed thus far and to schedule a new nal for the remaining eight contenders the next day, 18 July, at nine oclock in the morning. [18] The Italians ofcial reaction to Pulitis disqualication was rapid. Before the new nal could take place, Count Alberto Bonacossa wrote a letter in the name of the Italian Olympic Committee to the president of the French Olympic Committee, Count de Clary, in very diplomatic terms describing his own version of the events. [19] As he saw it, Kovacs wa