- 3 Jul 08, 02:39 PM
Look down the list of 28 Olympic disciplines and it's interesting to note how many of them count as combat sports.
There's boxing of course, judo and taekwondo, wrestling...and hockey. Or maybe that was just at my school.
And then there's fencing. On the surface, it doesn't have a great deal in common with the others. Think boxing and you think rough and ready East End gyms, the Kray twins, blood, sweat and broken noses. Think fencing and it's all about Errol Flynn and the Three Musketeers and duels at dawn over the honour of a fair maiden.
The address of the British Fencing Association in London is 1, Baron's Gate. Says it all, doesn't it?
But scratch the surface (with the point of your epee, maybe), and the similarities appear.
Alex O'Connell, one half of the GB fencing team for Beijing, is well over 6 feet tall, left handed, and notoriously difficult to beat, according to Graham Watts, performance director of British fencing.
"Think of him as a counter-punching south paw", he told me at the team announcement in London's Mayfair last week (there we go again with those posh stereotypes).
Alex is currently studying Classics at Cambridge University, having learnt to fence at his public school in Essex.
He explained the appeal of the sport to me as providing the perfect combination of physical and mental discipline. You need to be able to out-think your opponent and out-run them as well, using nifty footwork and landing hits when they're least expecting it.
But the big difference between fencing and other martial arts is that there are no weight categories. As the scoring blows don't carry great physical force behind them, you're less likely to do your opponent serious damage.
Londoner Richard Kruse could find himself up against a 6 foot 5 inch Chinese athlete or a 5 foot 6 inch Korean competitor in the foil competition in Beijing. Both of them are serious contenders for medals.
Kruse describes himself as the Crafty Cockney of the GB team. Unusually, he didn't go to public school, and believes that fencing is beginning to widen its appeal. In his spare moments he helps out coaching local kids at the Camden Fencing Club in North London.
It may be stretching it a bit to imagine York Hall in Bethnal Green opening up a Salle D'Armes alongside the boxing ring. I don't expect we'll see much pay-per-view fencing live from Caesar's Palace in the near future.
But if fencing still appears a niche sport with an elite image, consider this - it's featured in every Olympic Games since the modern era began in 1896. Only athletics, swimming and gymnastics share that distinction.
And if either Kruse or O'Connell can come back with a first British medal in the sport in 48 years, it could inspire a new generation of young musketeers to take to the piste and go "en-garde" for their country.
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