Why sparks could fly as fencing plots an evolutionary path to renewal in federation's centenary year

Sunday, 26 May 2013
By David Owen

David Owen ITGFew sports are as deeply rooted in Olympic history as fencing.

Not only is it one of only a handful to have featured at every Summer Games of the modern era. It provided Greece, home of the Ancient Olympics, with its very first modern-era gold medal. The fencing programme at the inaugural modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 - staged in the marble rotunda of the Zappeion - even included the first Olympic event to be contested by professional athletes.

As Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself explained, writing in a magazine called The Century: "Needless to say that the various contests were held under amateur regulations. An exception was made for the fencing matches, since in several countries professors of military fencing hold the rank of officers. For them a special contest was arranged. To all other branches of the athletic sports, only amateurs were admitted."

The question for fencing and other sports, at a time when the Olympic Movement is ever more acutely conscious that it needs to enthral and excite young people if it is to retain its unique position in the global sporting firmament, is this: 'Is a secure mooring in the annals of Olympic history any longer enough?'

Athens 1896 fencingGreece and France take on each other in front of spectators at the first Olympic Games held at the Zappeion in Athens in 1896

The clear implication following the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s surprising decision in February to recommend that wrestling - a sport which can trace its Olympic pedigree back at least 25 centuries - be axed from the list of core Games sports after Rio 2016 is that No, it is not

This context does much to explain why the International Fencing Federation (FIE) in its centenary year is spending more time looking forwards than it is back.

"We are an old but very dynamic sport," FIE secretary general Frédéric Pietruszka told me in an exclusive interview.

"This centenary must mark the renewal of fencing as it embarks on a new century.

"While we must not forget the 100 years that have passed, we must concern ourselves more with the next 100."

Pietruszka said that while his sport was "very surprised that a historic sport like wrestling" should have been affected in this way, "in the sport of fencing, we already knew that we had to implement innovations so as to make people think of fencing as a sport of the future."

He went on: "It is important not to change the actual rules of fencing too much.

"But we need to give consideration to modifying aspects of the sport's presentation and the clothing and equipment used by the athletes."

Among changes that could conceivably come in the relatively short term is the introduction of coloured - and more elegant/eye-catching - clothing for fencers. This might well bring an end to the tradition of fencers wearing white outfits. Then again, as an official told me, this tradition originated because hits used to be signified by black charcoal marks left by the tip of the opponent's blade – a practical consideration that clearly no longer applies.

While commissions have been appointed to examine possible changes in different areas, Pietruszka was clear that the federation would take things gently.

London 2012 fencingWhite uniforms could be replaced as part of fencing's modernisation programme

"The world of sport is very conservative," he told me.

"Any changes we make need to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

"We must introduce any novelties that we do think are necessary slowly and not too brutally.

"There is a due process, with changes needing to be approved in Congress and so forth.

"So I do not expect big changes before Rio 2016."

One change that could be implemented before the next Summer Games, however, would see Olympic competitions unrolling more quickly and, perhaps, in a more action-packed manner.

"We are...thinking about moving to shorten the length of individual matches," Pietruszka explained.

"This is because we have noticed that the third and final leg of a match is often the most active.

"We may cut the length of each leg from three minutes to two.

London 2012 fencing 2Cutting the length of bouts to help make them more exciting is one of the options being considered by the FIE

"If the FIE Executive Committee and the FIE Congress are in favour of this idea, we might test that in the 2013-14 season and so that change might be made for Rio."

One of today's main problems for the sport, according to Pietruszka, is to "help spectators to see and appreciate when a hit has been scored". So rapid is the speed of the athletes' movement at Olympic level that it can be hard for non-expert spectators (such as myself) to discern which fencer made the first touch.

It won't happen for a while, but "you might imagine one day that a successful touch might produce a burst of sparks, or a light where the contact was made", Pietruszka said.

The most futuristic visions of the sport even have fencers wielding Star Wars-style lightsabres, or similar, instead of metallic weapons.

"Perhaps one day fencers might compete using laser weapons, instead of metal ones," Pietruszka speculated.

"At the moment the notion of using lasers is no more than a distant dream.

"But we do need to think about what our sport ought to look like in 20 years' time."

I don't believe it will happen, at least not anytime soon, but what if the worst came to the worst and fencing lost its Olympic status? How grave a blow would it be?

Alisher Usmanov FIE Congress Moscow 2012FIE President, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, has helped provide the sport with financial stability

Pietruszka did not beat about the bush.

"We don't at all think it will happen, but it would be the death of our sport," he said.

"It is not just the money, although that is vital, but our credibility depends on being part of the Olympic programme.

"Would Mr [Alisher] Usmanov, our President, want to continue spending money to develop fencing worldwide if it were not an Olympic sport? I don't know.

"I don't even know if Mr Usmanov would remain as President if fencing were not in the Olympics – it is challenging enough to develop a sport even when it is in the Olympics.

"I think he would stay because he cares deeply about the sport, but it's difficult to say."

The secretary general told me that the federation expects to receive SFr 12-13 million (£8.3 million/$12.5 million/€9.7 million-£9million/$13.5 million/€10.5 million) from the IOC post-London 2012.

"That is the equivalent of about two years' turnover for the FIE," he said.

London 2012 fencing 3The success of London 2012 is set to provide a financial windfall for the FIE

"So, given that the Olympics has a four-year cycle, you could say that fencing's place at the Olympics produces approximately 50 percent of our income."

In a pretty distinguished career, the French-born Pietruszka, 59, spent 23 years with sportswear giant Adidas, subsequent to fencing his way to Olympic gold at the boycott-hit Moscow Games of 1980.

One of the athletes who saw his sporting dreams shattered by that boycott was fellow foil specialist Thomas Bach, whose West German fencing team had won gold at the previous Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and who is now a leading candidate to succeed Jacques Rogge as IOC President.

While no one would suggest that Bach is anything other than scrupulously fair in the conduct of his duties, it is hard to see that his elevation to the IOC presidency would be anything other than a good thing for fencing.

"It would be an honour for the sport of fencing if Bach became IOC President," Pietruszka acknowledged, adding: "For me personally, it would be a pleasure because we were opponents when we were athletes."

Who was better, I asked indiscreetly.

"The two of us were of about equal ability as foil fencers," he replied diplomatically.

Thomas Bach with Olympic gold medal Montreal 1976IOC Presidential candidate Thomas Bach (centre) is a former fencer, winning an Olympic gold medal in the team foil event at Montreal 1976

He went on:

"It would be very hard for anyone in that position to justify favouring his or her own sport when the post requires you to look after all Olympic sports.

"Thomas Bach would not do this and the FIE would never ask for something like that."

When I asked whether, no matter what innovations the FIE came up with, a sport based on a near obsolete military skill would not inevitably be seen as old-fashioned by today's young people, Pietruszka retorted with, I have to admit, much justification that there are few children who have not played with toy swords from time to time.

In that magazine article in 1896, de Coubertin held up fencing as an example of the Games' modern character, writing of programmes which "substituted bicycle for chariot races and fencing for the brutalities of pugilism".

If they can succeed in the years ahead at wrapping fencing once again in that cloak of modernity, or even frankly a skimpier shawl of modernity, the work of Pietruszka and his colleagues will be done.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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