Graham Morrison: British Fencing is on the rise towards London 2012
By Graham Morrison - 23 July 2009
It would be a big mistake to write off Britain’s medal chances in fencing for 2012. Admittedly there has been something of a drought since Bill Hoskyns took the individual epee silver in 1964, the last of 10 Olympics where Britain’s fencers took to the podium.
And Gillian Sheen won Britain’s only fencing gold, in 1956 at foil. That was a time when the likes of Bill Hoskyns, Alan Jay, John Pelling, Nick Halsted and others mirrored Britain’s Olympic efforts on world circuits.
But the sport is emerging fast from the medal doldrums, led mainly by Richard Kruse and Nick Halsted’s son Laurence, both Londoners. They are fortunate in their choice of coach, Ziemek Wojciechowski an ex-Polish international who settled here some 25 plus years ago. Wojciechowski has produced British medalists before, in the junior ranks. But this time the chances of his pupils landing senior world championship and Olympic medals look odds on.
Last year Halsted took the silver medal in the European Championships; this year he settled for bronze, but only after losing 15/12 to Kruse in the semi-final last week in Bulgaria. Earlier this year Kruse won gold at the Venice Grand Prix, another gold in the Copenhagen ‘A’ Grade, and silver at the Paris grand Prix – the best clutch of results by any British fencer for years.
For Beijing, Kruse was genuinely unlucky to have to wait for a late selection; an injury caused him to rest with a resultant loss of leg strength at the qualifier. In Beijing he was also unlucky having the priority given against him in extra time and going out on a spit second hit. Halsted would probably have been on the plane if his European medal had come a couple of months earlier. For 2012 the pair, on current form, should not need to rely on the host nation allocation of places, they should qualify in their own right.
And that leaves the target of getting into the medals. British Fencing did not promise to get medals in Beijing. But for London they have. Three years goes quickly and a lot a can happen. Realistically, men’s foil looks their best shot although the talented Cambridge undergraduate Alex O’Connell (pictured) in men’s sabre should peak by 2012. He forced through with an outright qualification in 2008, but 2012 was always his real aim. The third fencer in Beijing, Martina Emanuel, is half Italian and ranked world 85th. She has little realistic chance of getting near a medal on current form.
So if all goes to plan, and Performance Director Graham Watts keeps the ducks in line, focused and un-injured, then they look set for at least one medal. All to play for. But as any soldier will tell you, no plan survives contact with the enemy.
One weak point is the depth of top talent, something British Fencing is addressing. A little over a year into the job, chief executive Piers Martin is busy re-ordering the administration and development of the sport along business lines. He, like British Fencing Association President Keith Smith, is upbeat on Britain’s 2012 prospects. But Martin is planning through to 2020. And asked about 2012 legacy and the lack of a permanent structure in the Olympic park, he commented: “The real legacy is in the people who will try fencing as a result of the increased awareness of the sport and the people who we will develop as part of the support structure.”
Despite arguments over ‘bricks and mortar legacy’, Martin is almost certainly right; other cities have ended up with empty buildings and rubbish-strewn parks. Buildings are not a lot of use without the people to put in them. And in any case the National Governing Bodies are in the business of developing sport, not property.
This weekend the senior British Championships take place at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Kruse, Halsted and Emanuel will be in action amongst some 550 fencers from around the UK. They should be in the medals. But for the future Martin, Smith and Watts will look for leading juniors breaking through. As in diving this week, fencing has seen young world champions. Alongside the championships British Fencing will contribute to the London 2012 ‘Open Weekend’ in spirit and action; anyone can turn up and have a taste of the sport with a professional coach for free.
Britain’s first Olympic medal was in the 1906 Interim Olympics in Athens when the epee team, lead by the first British Olympic Association chairman Lord Desborough won silver. Saturday’s championships, so professionally prepared and timed, might seem light years from Lord Desborough’s era. Desborough sailed somewhat casually to Athens on the yacht of Lord Howard de Walden, also a fencer in 1906. But then Desborough was the man who made a profit running the 1908 London Olympics. Not so different after all then. British Fencing seems poised to reprise it’s early successes.
Graham Morrison est known for his coverage of fencing, although he also covered numerous other sports including archery, Modern Pentathlon, triathlon and most Olympic sports. He has overed the last four summer Olympics and other multi-sports events for various newspapers and periodicals. He also worked as a Media Manager at one World University Games. He has been the press officer and official photographer for the British Fencing Association for past 20 years. He was also the press chief for the International Fencing Federation (FIE) for three years and served on the IOC's 'ORIS' commission/working group for fencing between Atlanta and Sydney.