Mike Rowbottom ©Getty Images

When the 2018 World Fencing Championships, which run from July 19 to 27, were awarded to the Chinese hosts in 2015, the decision was applauded by China's Olympic champion Lei Sheng.

The 31-year-old winner of the men's individual foil title at London 2012, who also has two world titles and a Universiade gold medal in his collection, commented: "I have participated in the World Championships almost 10 times, which were all held in Europe.

"Now it will come to China.

"It is a great thing for both fencing and China."

The arrival of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) World Championships in Jiangsu Province this week bolsters the position of host city Wuxi, where action will take place at the Sports Center Gym, as a place of growing note in terms of holding sporting events.

The International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup Final, the World Women's Handball Championship and the World Archery Youth Championships have all been held there as well as the Wuxi Classic and World Cup snooker tournaments.

But the action of taking the sport's main showcase away from its European heartland and deep into Asia also chimes with the vision articulated by the FIE's hugely influential and sometimes mysterious President Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born magnate whom Forbes estimated last year to be Russia's fifth richest businessman, worth a net total of $15.1 billion (£11.4 billion/€12.9 million).

Usmanov's loyalties to fencing are clear to see. A former sabre fencer who competed for the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, he has invested generously in the promotion of fencing through his charity fund "For the Future of Fencing", created in 2004, and was President of the Russian Fencing Federation from 2001 to 2009 and of the European Fencing Confederation from 2005 to 2009.

International Fencing Federation President Alisher Usmanov is a highly influential figure ©Getty Images
International Fencing Federation President Alisher Usmanov is a highly influential figure ©Getty Images

He was elected President of the International Fencing Federation in 2008 and has remained in the position since.

In November 2013, as the FIE marked its centenary, Usmanov told BBC Sport: "We need to increase the visibility of our sport.

"To try and give an acceptable product for the internet and TV and to allow spectators to get involved in the emotion of the sport."

The FIE mission statement has loftier ambitions, stating that its objective is "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. The practice of sport is a human right".

The FIE, in common with many other international sporting federations, has its offices in Lausanne, close to Lake Leman, but Usmanov, as one might expect, is rarely there.

The programme for the World Championship attests to the importance Usmanov has to the sport as it highlights the main sponsors - Tissot Watches, and MegaFon, the Russian mobile phone company largely owned and controlled by him.

This is only one of many strands in Usmanov's business life, however. He is reported to have built his wealth through metal and mining operations and investments. He is the majority shareholder of Metalloinvest, a Russian industrial conglomerate which has previously been a shirt sponsor for Dinamo Moscow FC.

He owns the Kommersant publishing house and is co-owner of the Mail.ru group, the largest internet company in the Russian-speaking world.

Usmanov has been a significant investor in Digital Sky Technologies funds, and holds shares in a number of international technology businesses including Alibaba, Airbnb and Spotify.

He has also been general director of Gazprom Invest Holdings, the investment-holding subsidiary of Russia's state-owned gas company Gazprom and he managed it for more than a decade.

He also owns a 30 per cent stake in Arsenal Football Club, and has made no secret of the fact that he wants to buy out majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, who last year turned down a $1.3 billion (£1 billion/€1.1 billion) offer from Usmanov - who is said to be a close friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich - for the 67 per cent of shares he owns.

Usmanov, who turned down a subsequent reciprocal offer from Kroenke, valuing his shares at £525 million ($695 million/€594 million), has since issued a statement saying that he is open to a range of options with Arsenal - other than selling to the majority shareholder.

"I would like to assure supporters that I am open to various future scenarios - a constructive partnership with the majority shareholder; the purchase of his stake either alone or in a consortium or, if a party appears who share my and undoubtedly the majority of fans' vision for the club, I could consider the question of selling my stake," Usmanov said.

Arsenal FC's majority shareholder Stan Kroenke last year turned down an offer from Alisher Usmanov to buy him out - and then made an offer to buy Usmanov out which was refused ©Getty Images
Arsenal FC's majority shareholder Stan Kroenke last year turned down an offer from Alisher Usmanov to buy him out - and then made an offer to buy Usmanov out which was refused ©Getty Images

In September 2007, when Usmanov accrued 23 per cent of Arsenal's shares, starting with the 14.58 per cent stake owned by the disaffected former vice-chairman David Dein, Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood voiced his opposition to the Uzbek’s involvement.

"He's certainly not an open book," Hill-Wood said. "Business is murky in Uzbekistan, and that in itself is an argument against him being involved in Arsenal. I wouldn't want him to be the owner of the club.

"Stan Kroenke is involved in sport and we have had constructive meetings with him.

"We have never been in better shape financially and do not want anybody to buy the club, but if Kroenke wanted to buy it he would understand it and how to maintain the standards.

"We have not met Usmanov, so I may be speaking prematurely, but he seems a different kettle of fish."

Hill-Wood, however, had initially opposed Kroenke's involvement. And as was subsequently claimed on Arsenal fan website Gooner Talk, the chairman allegedly had his own business interests in the former Soviet Union so was perhaps not such an open book himself.

The arguments range on both sides - but Hill-Wood's doubts have been echoed in other sporting and business contexts as Usmanov - who has been effectively barred from becoming a board member at Arsenal despite his investments - has continued to exert influence.

In August 1980, aged 26, Usmanov was arrested and convicted on charges of fraud and "theft of socialist property" in his homeland and imprisoned for six years of an eight-year sentence.

The conviction was vacated in July 2000, 11 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan. It was ruled that "the original conviction was unjust, no crime was ever committed…the evidence was fabricated".

More recently, Usmanov has been criticised for attempting to censor online criticism of himself, and was accused of censorship by journalists on his own Kommersant Vlast magazine when he sacked the editor after an issue supporting claims that the 2011 Russian Parliamentary elections, which saw an overwhelming win for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, had been vote-rigged. The magazine carried an image of a ballot paper with the words "Putin, go f*** yourself" on it.

Usmanov said there had been a violation of ethics, adding, with reference to the image: "These materials border on petty hooliganism."

Alisher Usmanov and President Vladimir Putin pictured during a visit to a new Metalloinvest installation in Russia last year ©Getty Images
Alisher Usmanov and President Vladimir Putin pictured during a visit to a new Metalloinvest installation in Russia last year ©Getty Images

Despite his origins, Usmanov has remained adamant that he has not been involved in business in his home country. 

Last December, however, he told Reuters that this position was changing as he pledged to help the new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is trying to re-build his country after a quarter of a century of Soviet-style economic policies. He reportedly faces resistance from some domestic rivals.

Mainly Muslim Uzbekistan was run from its independence in 1991 until 2016 by former President Islam Karimov, who died last September.

"I am ready to help [Uzbekistan] in any way possible and I am already helping," said Usmanov, who moved to Russia as a young man. "My role today is advice, consulting, and charitable projects."

Asked how much he was willing to invest in Uzbekistan, he said: "As much as I can".

He did not give further details about investments, although he said that ties were being strengthened between the Russian holding company, USM, in which he holds a 49 per cent stake, and metal plants in Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoyev's reform plans include the privatisation of state property.

In May this year, singer Robbie Williams was reported to have been hired at Megafon’s 25th year anniversary corporate party following the three-day Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum.

As The Guardian pointed out, the choice of Williams seemed odd given that his 2016 song Party Like A Russian had been criticised in Russia for supposedly repeating offensive stereotypes, including the lyrics: "Party like a Russian, oh/have it like an oligarch/I've got Stoli and Bolly and molly, so I'm jolly/And I’m always off my trolley, so I never say sorry".

Williams also sings about a leader who "alleviates the cash from a whole entire nation, takes loose change and builds his own space station".

The Forum was chaired by Putin - with whom Usmanov is known to be, or at least widely said to be, close.

During his 2013 interview to mark the FIE centenary, Usmanov had warned that doping was the biggest threat to the Olympic Movement.

"Like everything in life, you have problems but we have many, many reasons to be confident about our future," he said. "The Olympic Movement has a long history and this gives us confidence.

"If you ask me my personal opinion, the most important thing is to close the door on any doping. Number one is the health of young people."

From this perspective it was unfortunate that the Sochi 2014 Winter Games that took place the following year - for which Usmanov's companies built telecoms infrastructures - should later be shown to have produced a slew of doping irregularities involving home athletes, prompting strong allegations that there was a state-sponsored doping programme in operation.

As befits a man who has built up a huge mobile phone network in the course of the last 25 years, Usmanov is all about connections.

The perception widely held - although not voiced - in Russia is that Usmanov is close not just to Putin but to his fellow fencer Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee.

Alisher Usmanov, President of the International Fencing Federation, pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach in 2014 at an event to celebrate the latter's 60th birthday  ©Getty Images
Alisher Usmanov, President of the International Fencing Federation, pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach in 2014 at an event to celebrate the latter's 60th birthday ©Getty Images

And to two other ex-fencers - Russia's Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov, and the man who in May replaced Alexander Zhukov - not seeking re-election having been suspended as an IOC member last year when Russia was banned - as President of the Russian Olympic Committee, Stanislav Podznyakov.

Podznyakov, who has won four Olympic golds in Usmanov's former event of the sabre, including the 1996 individual title, said: "Our main task is to mend relations [with global sports bodies] through the return of trust in the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). We will pay the most careful attention to this."

Pozdnyakov added that the ROC was preparing an educational programme to persuade athletes starting at grassroots level not to take performance-enhancing substances.

The widely held perception of Usmanov is that of a "grey cardinal" - an influencer in the background.

But he came out into clear view last December with an impassioned letter - on FIE-headed paper - which called for the IOC to perform a U-turn and allow Russian athletes to participate under their own flag at the Pyeongchang Winter Games of 2018.

Usmanov claimed that the IOC decision to make Russian athletes compete neutrally at the Games "contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement".

It made him the first senior international sporting official to publicly criticise the IOC decision.

"One of the principles of Roman law states: 'Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa' - meaning no guilt - no punishment," Usmanov wrote in a letter addressed to the IOC Executive Board.

"The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees.

"This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice."

He then requested that the IOC "balance on the scales of Themis the necessity to punish the guilty with the aspirations of clean Russian athletes and their equal rights as members of the Olympic family".

The world's best fencers are due to arrive for the World Championships in China ©Getty Images
The world's best fencers are due to arrive for the World Championships in China ©Getty Images

"Let us give the right at least to the winners of the 2018 Olympics to reach the summit of their dream and see the flag of the motherland in Pyeongchang's sky," he said.

The plea came three days after the IOC ruled that Russian athletes must compete under the name "Olympic Athletes from Russia" as a collective punishment for the "systemic manipulation" of the anti-doping systems at events including Sochi 2014.

On the face of it, you might think such a request would sit a little oddly coming from the President of a historic and honourable but far from high-profile Olympic sport.

On this broad subject, as it happens, with new sports - even e-sports - thronging to join the Olympic fold, Usmanov has gone on record: "Second is to find harmony between new sports while keeping traditional sports which are so closely related to the Olympic Games. We have a big problem in keeping this balance."

But everybody knew this was not just a letter from a President of a sporting federation.

The IOC did not perform the U-turn Usmanov had asked for. But days after Pyeongchang, it lifted the ban against Russia despite two Russian athletes testing positive for banned substances at the South Korean Games.

The country's athletics federation, its anti-doping agency RUSADA and its Paralympic Committee remain suspended by international sporting bodies over doping allegations.

Does anybody know how to resolve this international sporting impasse?