In the hot, muggy gym, echoing with the clatter of steel and the grunts of combatants, the sport has lost a little of its elegance.

"This is definitely not what most people would expect fencing to be like," said Greg Massialas of Sunnyvale, Calif., a third-place finisher in the foil competition of this week's national fencing championships at George Mason University. "They hear fencing and they think Zorro and Errol Flynn. But the glamor just isn't here. It's too grueling to be glamorous."

For the 600 fencers at George Mason this week, the competition has been as much a test of concentration and endurance as skill.

To win any of the five individual events--men's foil, epee and saber, women's foil and epee--a fencer had to survive two rounds of round-robin competition to make it to the double-elimination segment with 24 fencers. After all but eight contestants had been knocked out, the eight faced each other in a regular playoff. Some individuals ended up fencing 25 or 30 bouts in just one event.

To make it all just a little more complicated, the seedings were recomputed at the end of each major portion of the event. They were determined by each fencer's "indicator"--the total number of touches he made against his opponents and received during the course of the competition.

Massialas, for example, was entered in the foil, epee and team foil competition. By the time the epee event ends Saturday evening, he will have fenced the equivalent of about 66 bouts.

"As a fencer becomes fatigued, his technique deteriorates," said Dr. Marios Valsamis, who officiated at this week's competition and has worked with Olympic fencing prospects. "The man who by sheer will can maintain his technique will win. All things equal, intelligence and technique will win out."

If the complexities of the competition and the rigors of the schedule were not enough to throw the swordsmen off, the tournament's circus atmosphere has caused problems for some of them.

Spectators and officials milled about the 18 fencing strips on two floors of the George Mason gym offering advice and condolences, speaking to be heard over the clatter of blades and the high-pitched pings of the electronic scorers.

But when the competitors walked onto the copper fencing strips and plugged their weapons into the electronic monitoring system, they also plugged into another world.

"Sometimes it seems as if it would be impossible to concentrate, with all the activity, all the screaming, all the applause, all the hassling," Massialis said. "But when you put your mask on and step onto the strip, all that exists in the universe is your adversary.

"Fencing is psychological warfare, me outsmarting you. That's why the best fencers are the sneakiest. It is the search for the ultimate truth, the true feeling where you set up the situation, force your opponent to do something and then nail him," Massialas said.

"When the mask comes down, it's life and death."