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British Fencing and a French revolution

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Ollie Williams | 16:45 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Not many sporting arenas look like Le Grand Palais.

Fencing has taken its World Championships to Paris and set up home in the vast, imposing metal-and-glass construction on the banks of the Seine, opposite the Eiffel Tower.

Millions of euros have been spent fitting out the interior to accommodate eight fencing pistes and grandstands for thousands of supporters as well as provide an extravaganza of light and sound to accompany each final being contested this week.

Just as some believe the Beijing Games were so lavishly financed as to ensure they will never be beaten for style, the French - working with fencing's world governing body, the FIE - have attempted to make this the best venue the sport will ever have.

Like Beijing, it is the British who have the unenviable task of following, with the European Championships coming to the United Kingdom next July. Organisers of that event have been touring Le Grand Palais, working out how to make Sheffield the next Paris.

The French seem to have it all: an astonishing venue, huge queues of excited spectators waiting to get in and world-class fencers (France topped the fencing medal table in Beijing). How do the British go about replicating that success?

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Video: See inside Le Grand Palais (UK only).

From the outside looking in, it is an interesting challenge. If you want popularity, you need success. If you want success, you need funding. If you want funding, you need success and popularity.

At the moment, fencing in Britain is struggling for any of those things. Only four Olympic sports receive less funding than fencing's £2.5m UK Sport grant, which covers the period from 2009 to 2013, while no British fencer has won a medal at a World Championships since 1965.

As for the crowds, the large number of French fans have left the British team gobsmacked. GB's Jo Hutchison shook her head in disbelief on seeing ticket touts operating outside the arena entrance.

"I'm jealous of what they've got going on here," said epee fencer Jon Willis. "Even the British fencers get surrounded by autograph hunters and kids. I saw a French guy win earlier and he got a standing ovation from thousands. That's never happened to me."

A dismayed Laurence Halsted - one of Britain's top fencers - summed things up after his surprise defeat capped off an unimpressive weekend for British Fencing in Paris. "This venue is amazing, which is the reason why I wanted to carry on and do more fencing," he said. "It's incredible to be here. This is what we want to have in every competition.

"I think it'll be a top-notch competition in Sheffield but this is an incredible venue. We'll be holding the European Championships in a sports centre, not a grand palace."

Not everything has gone to plan in Paris. Officials and athletes have been left confused by organisational problems behind the scenes and frustrated by overzealous stewards, while the roof on the venerable building, which was built at the end of the 19th Century, leaked onto competitors when the rain set in at the weekend.

But those issues cannot mask the problems facing British organisers for next year's European Championships.

They have a budget of £500,000 to stage the event at Sheffield's English Institute of Sport next year, whereas the World Championships are believed to have been staged on a budget roughly equivalent to £5m. Similarly, British Fencing believes its French equivalent operates to a budget 20 times the size of its own.

"France certainly get more money than we do and they're certainly ahead of us at the moment," said British Fencing's chief executive, Piers Martin, a man who made his name in swimming before taking up the challenge of bolstering fencing's fortunes.

"We're not going to compete with this in Sheffield but we want to try to create an intense atmosphere. We're running Sheffield 2011 not for show but to help our athletes get on the ladder for 2012. This is a real step stone for them. They go from here to the European Championships. Then we move to the test event in 2011 and the major event in 2012."

"Our main target is a medal at London 2012. People look at fencing in a different light - we've got to shatter those perceptions and make it simple and easy for people to start. We've got to show we are succeeding, because we are."

Martin points out that, while world medals continue to elude them, Britain won European bronze for the first time in four decades earlier this year and are getting fencers onto the podium at junior events. As I discovered last week, initiatives to get children fencing in Britain - and blow the cobwebs from the sport's image - are starting to have an impact.

Fencing inside Le Grand Palais, Paris, at the 2010 World Championships

Dusks sets on the fencers inside Le Grand Palais in Paris. Photo: AFP

But John Timms, the man charged with overseeing preparations for Sheffield 2011, is under no illusions that the British public will need persuading to turn up in Sheffield.

"That's something we recognised early and we're going to have to work hard on," he said, "although we've got lots of interest from schools and communities already. They're already signing up to take part in projects so, yes, we can create the same excitement.

"There's lots here we'd like to do and lots of things we can still do but not to the same level of grandeur or spectacle. What I do want to achieve are the world-class elements the athletes are receiving here. We've got to make sure it looks as good as this. We may not be able to do all the wonderful lights, colour and all the other things. I just wish we could have this budget, it'd be amazing."

Marketing will have a clear role to play. There are posters advertising the World Fencing all over Paris as well as adverts for fencing exhibitions in other venues. Full-page spreads have been given over to the sport in many newspapers. That is what Graham Watts, the performance director who will be responsible for British fencing's success at London 2012, believes is missing in the UK.

"Culturally, fencing is a French sport, it goes back generations," he told me. "We can't replicate that overnight. But in Britain I think there is a lot of interest in fencing.

"It's exciting when you come to watch it and it's reasonably easy to understand once you get into the rules. Provided it's marketed in the right way, it'll pick up the interest."

Having spent several days watching the events, with a little help from educated onlookers, I certainly found that the sport becomes easier to follow and more exciting as a result. Fencing's three disciplines - foil, epee and sabre - make much more sense when you see up close what is going on and what the objective is. But you have to get people into the venue and educate them first.

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Video: British stars in action at World Fencing (UK only).

Martin added: "We want to get the images and names of people like Laurence Halsted and Richard Kruse out there, so we get kids interested in wanting to be the next one of them. Maybe a child who goes to watch in Sheffield next year could be on the podium for us in the future."

Halsted himself believes it is those children who hold the key to unlocking the sport's popularity in Britain - and not necessarily if he wins a medal or not.

"There's no use just going for high-performance results. They help but we need to provide a structure to get people to know about fencing," he said. "The medals at international level bring fencing into the public consciousness but that's the first step."

As for his chances of taking that first step, all is not lost. Halsted returns with his team-mates for the men's foil team event on Thursday, which is the one where British Fencing expects a medal come 2012. Kruse would normally lead the team but his broken foot means Halsted will do so instead in Paris.

"It can be worse to do well in the individual event first, then you're too satisfied with your performance ahead of the team event," he told me, slightly unconvincingly, after his loss.

"The fact we've all come up without the results we wanted means we'll be desperate to do well in the team event. We're actually gaining some domination in the world scene, especially my squad and my team, but you get the odd competition where it doesn't come up at all. But I know we're a team to be revered and feared... most of the time."

Will you take time out to travel to the European Fencing in Sheffield next July? What would fencing have to do to appeal to you? Let me know. Chances are, the organisers will be listening and taking notes.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great stuff Ollie. I would love to hear from people that would be interested in a touring roadshow in the run up to Sheffield 2011. The French took a tour bus aroudn the country in the lead up to the Worlds and it went down a storm. Are there any schools out ther that would be interested in finding out more about fencing and perhaps have the chance to win tickets to the event in July next year? PS: Am I an "educated onlooker"? haha

  • Comment number 2.

    I would love to see more fencing. It's one of the sports that benefits from being shown on TV because action replays are so useful. It's also fast, exciting - even glamorous. I'd like to watch fencing at the Olympics but probably won't get there - the prices plus fares make it an expensive day. However I have watched the British Open and may try to see some of the European Fencing at Sheffield. I'd love to see some of the top European fencers in action, especially fencers from the countries where it has a higher profile as a sport. Will the BBC be covering it? There are plenty of people who could give a clear, knowledgeable commentary.

    Incidentally most people don't realise that there are many fencing clubs in Britain - and it's not necessarily that expensive to take a beginners' or taster course. In my experience it's also a sport that welcomes all ages (from about 9 to nearly 70 in my local club) and in club settings there are usually mixed gender and mixed age bouts. It's also possible to fence at a range of ability levels - a good club will welcome newcomers and include people from a wide range of backgrounds (often united by a secret love of swashbuckling movies).

  • Comment number 3.

    Why are they hosting fencing in the Excel. I'm sure we could have been a bit more creative and got people talking about order to attract attention and interest in the sport they need to stand out from the homogenous minority sports that are being lumped in to Excel.

    What about the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo or even the Great Hall in the British museum - from the example in Paris it looks like most venues can be adapted. Why do we lack creativity and imagination in this country!?!

  • Comment number 4.

    I'd definately go to see an international fencing competition as I'm an experienced fencer myself.

    I think fencing may be less successful in Britain than in France because the governing body are only really focused on their elite athletes and allow the sport to remain quite elitist. They bring out rules about adopting new equipment at competitions, supposedly for safety reasons, but presumably to help the major equipment supplier more money. Regulations forcing people to spend £100s on equipment to take the sport any further than a casual level is not helpful. They should make the lower level competitions more accessible and invest in new coaches and clubs to expand the sport, not focus on trying to beat France or the other world-class countries.


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