Cadets and Juniors - a glimpse into the future

With the various zonal cadet and junior championships taking place and the Cadet and Junior European Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria happening at the start of April, it is perhaps time to look at where the cadets and juniors fit in to the fencing world, look back at youngsters who have developed into stars at senior level and consider why “kids” fencing draws the eye.

The first world junior championships (or World Youth Championships, as they were called then) were held in Nimes, France in 1950 and the first world cadet championships, held separately from the juniors, in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1987. The cadet and junior championships were held at the same time and venue for the first time in Denver, USA in 1993.

Sean surveys the talent at the Junior and Cadet World championships.

Sean surveys the talent at the Junior and Cadet World championships.

The junior season starts in early September and the FIE World Cup circuit covers all corners of the globe (not always successfully, as Gav and I have discussed in previous episodes of the podcast). For the ambitious junior fencer, a lot of time in hotels, planes and airports is probably already familiar territory. There are 8 or 9 events in each weapon and most include an individual and team competition. World rankings follow the same structure as for the seniors (32 points for a win, 26 for 2nd, 20 for 3rd, 14 for top 8, etc). Zonal championships multiply these points by 1.5 and the world championships by 2.5. However, unlike the senior circuit, the junior rankings aren’t always the best guide for who is in top form. For some, a full season of junior World Cups is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming at a time when they are often funded by the bank of Mum and Dad and studying full-time. For others, their focus has already switched to collecting ranking points and experience at senior level. For example, Ka Long Cheung of Hong Kong in men’s foil has only fenced in one junior World Cup and the Asian junior championships this season and is currently ranked 8th in the juniors but is 13th in the senior rankings.

Matters are even more confusing when trying to pick a favourite in cadets where there are no FIE world rankings. Instead, probably the best guide is the European Cadet Circuit events which attract fencers from around the world but by no means everyone (the Asian countries understandably are only occasional visitors) and very few fencers compete in anything close to all the events that count towards the rankings. This does, of course, make the cadet world championships much more unpredictable and, in some ways, more exciting.

Gav watches the last tournament featuring Russian Box of Death.

Gav watches the last tournament featuring Russian Box of Death.

Many previous winners of the junior world championships have gone on to be stars of the senior scene but the transition is by no means a certainty. Equally, there are many fencers that looked decent but nothing special as juniors but went on to huge success at senior level. Looking back at fencers from my own time in fencing provides examples of all these. Alex Koch of West Germany (as it was then) was one of the group of fast, strong and aggressive men’s foilists from that country that dominated junior men’s foil in the late 80’s (yes, I am that old). He won the junior world championships in South Bend (USA) in 1988 and although he failed to defend his junior title the following year, he did take the senior world title in 1989 and again 1993.  At the 1989 junior worlds in Athens, the men’s foil was won by Ye Chong of China. Nobody had ever heard of him because he hadn’t fenced in any of the junior world cups and, while he went on to have a decent senior career, he never got close to claiming a senior world title. Meanwhile in the quarter-finals of those same junior world championships was a Soviet left-hander with a weird sense of timing and a ridiculously short lunge - it would have been difficult to spot young Sergei Goloubitski as a future three times world senior champion and the dominant men’s foilist of the 90s. Take a look through the results of almost any junior world championships - any year, any weapon, any gender - and it will likely produce that same mixture of “they were amazing and always looked like being a star”, “they looked amazing but whatever happened to them” and “I barely remember them as juniors but look at them now!” The trick, of course, is to be able to tell one from the other when they’re still competing as juniors. And, for me, that is a big part of the appeal of watching junior and cadet fencing (as well as the sheer quality of the fencing from young athletes). It's bit like being able to say you saw a band play live before they made it big! For all these reasons I can’t wait for this year’s Cadet and Junior World Championships at the beginning of April!

It is what it is.

In a dark hall, 2 men face off with swords. Their faces are hidden, there's a quiet respect between them and no one is sure who will emerge the victor. They salute and advance; one takes the initiative and strikes. There are flashes of green and red light, someone has won… But enough of the Paris Grand Prix, I want to talk to you about Fencing and Star Wars. Or rather I want to talk to you about what I perceive as a lack of confidence in the image of Fencing, what it says about the sport and what it says about the public's perception of it.

The final of of the CIP in Paris?

The final of of the CIP in Paris?

Every few years something big arrives in the media. It might be a blockbuster spy film, it might be a new entry in a well-known genre juggernaut and it could even be the supposed resurrection of an almost forgotten genre of film, the swashbuckler.  The important point is that it features a "sword".  What happens next is inevitable, the sport will try to cash-in. It will try and take some crumbs from the mass media table in the hope that please-oh-please will a few people take up the sport.

For a moment let's be honest with ourselves. The sport of Fencing is not a popular sport; it is a minority sport and likely to remain that way. But it's also a minority sport with a glorious past, a history with which almost everyone has a romantic association. At least at first. Why do we get involved in Fencing? Ask beginners and most reel off their version of the romantic myth, two men (it's almost always men) fighting each other on a misty moor over some slight, two mystic samurai having an ideological duel to the death … How many beginners do we speak to who say that they've seen the Olympics and think that Fencing is what they want to do? I'd wager not many and I don't blame them because Fencing is not well served by its representation in the wider culture.

Gav realises he has podcast editing to do.

Gav realises he has podcast editing to do.

Quite a few sports get good coverage in film, in the press and in literature. Sports films cover particular sports very well, the more popular a sport the more likely you are to see something good made about it or at least work that is broadly representational and true to its spirit. Of course there's a certain formula to many of these stories because that's what most people want. I love sports films: I admire the typical struggle against adversity in a Boxing film, I enjoy the way American myth plays out in a good Baseball film or how a boy can be redeemed through falconry. In the vast majority of these films I never get the sense that I am being lied to, that if I were to dip my toes into that sport I would find something different. Of course it would be different but different in the way that the world looks different through a pane of glass. Smudged, haloed but recognisably the world of that thing. Except Baseball which is portrayed well in every aspect except how boring it actually is.

Fencing though, fencing is not well served.

Think about how many good films about the modern sport of fencing exist. How many, one or two? And when I say modern sport I mean the sport as it is practiced today and not the sport as it was in the 30s and 40s or the 19th century or even earlier. The obvious examples might be the film By The Sword or the fencing scenes in the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. Please don't talk to me about that scene in Die Another Day. Really think how many times you have seen a good representation of the sport in a wider cultural context. Think about those times the sport makes it into the news and the language that's used. Do you think the sport is presented well?

This brings me to Star Wars. Who can deny the power of the Force (of advertising)? Since 1977 it's been a big deal, arguably rewriting the direction of Hollywood and certainly making George Lucas a very wealthy man. Its recent (re-?) resurrection means that everywhere you look something is trying to tie itself to it. And wait, it features a sword, in fact the most romantic sword of all - one made of laser-light! So Fencing feels the need to get in on that action. There are news items written that reference Star Wars, clubs offer instruction in using a lightsabre, everywhere you go you see the famous font from the title card.  It's too much and it's doing us a disservice.

This isn't an argument against using whatever is fashionable as a marketing tool. Fencing can of course exploit a brand as much as any other sport, toy manufacturer or fast food outlet.  Sith branded epee blades anyone? If it's fashionable to use the trappings of Star Wars then so be it.

Instead I argue that it is not in Fencing's best interests to continue the lie that it is anything other than the sport of Fencing. If your beginners turn up expecting fantasy-sword one-on-one action then they should be disappointed. It's not their fault that every news item, every piece of literature ties the sport to a nostalgic fantasy far far away. That's our fault.

Fencing has lots of rules, it is complex and it is athletic - requiring a lot of effort to learn. My argument is that it's our responsibility to present the sport on our terms. We must be honest with ourselves and with others about the sport. We need to tell them why we love it and we need to tell them the real story of it. This is why I am a fan of Yuki Ota's video about fencing. It presents the sport honestly as something modern and interesting, tells you how it works with minimal reference to any nonsense in the zeitgeist. I wish more of us had that confidence. I want us to be unafraid of honesty, saying "I love the sport of fencing!" because that's telling the truth: Fencing is what it is.

Olympic Men’s Foil - a changing of the guard (8th August 2016)

If, like me, you’ve followed the progress of the international men’s foil circuit over the last dozen or so years, you’ll having been looking forward to the Rio Olympics with an almost rabid anticipation. As it turned out, Sunday’s competition provided all the drama, excitement, skill and glory you could hope for.

To start with I’ll declare my hand and state that I was looking for success for the British contingent of Laurence Halsted, James Davis and Richard Kruse. Davis and Kruse came in to the event ranked 5th and 6th in the world having both had victories in World Cup competitions this season, Halsted had reached the quarter-finals in last year’s world championships and the recent European championships. Hopes were high but realistic. As I’d said all along, almost two thirds of the competitors stood a chance of claiming a medal at these Games.

The Action

In the end, Halsted gave Haiwei Chen of China too much of a head start in his last 32 fight and couldn’t claw back the deficit. At the same stage Davis and Kruse made short work of Ferjani (TUN) and Sintes (ALG) respectively. Meanwhile, in the first massive shock of the day, Brazil’s Guilherme Toldo eliminated reigning world champion Yuki Ota (JPN). Timur Safin defeated teammate, and 2014 world champion, Alexey Cheremisinov. The defending Olympic champion, China’s Sheng Lei, was knocked out by Erwan LePechoux of France. Social media darling and 2013 world champion, Miles Chamley-Watson of the USA was eliminated by Russia’s Artur Akhmatkhuzin.

In the last 16, James Davis built an early lead against Safin but was gradually reined in and eventually Safin came through. James will be kicking himself but you can be sure he will learn from it. Kruse defeated long-time rival Andrea Cassara of Italy with a fantastic display of timing and distance to repeat his quarter-final performance in Athens in 2004. Toldo’s glorious run continued with a win over Cheung of Hong Kong. Italy’s Daniele Garozzo edged out 2012 silver medallist Abouelkassem of Egypt. Chen defeated teammate Ma and Meinhardt (USA) beat LePechoux on the last hit. Giorgio Avola of Italy beat four-time world champion Peter Joppich of Germany and world number 1, Alex Massialas of the USA achieved a comfortable win against Akhmatkhuzin.

In the quarter-finals Garozzo abruptly ended Toldo’s hopes and Safin over-powered Chen. Kruse fenced a very smart fight against Meinhardt to progress and Massialas staged a Houdini-like escape to come back from 14-8 down against Avola and make it through.

In the end there was little drama in the semi-finals. Garozzo eased past Safin 15-8. The Italian used his super-slow preparations and lightning fast lunges, strong quarte parry riposte and sharp close quarter work to dominate the fight. He has never won a senior World Cup but he had progressed pretty smoothly into the Olympic final. In the second semi-final Massialas was too efficient for Kruse and Richard couldn’t find a way to disrupt the American’s rhythm and Massialas rant out the winner 15-9.

In the bronze medal match, Safin and Kruse were closely matched in the early part of the fight but the Russian pulled away to take a 13-8 lead, helped by a couple of video reviews that saw hits initially awarded to Richard being overturned. But Kruse wasn’t throwing in the towel and started to pull back the hits to get back to 14-13 down and the momentum was with him. The minute break was arguably Safin’s saviour and on the resumption he scored the final hit to take the bronze medal. I was pretty close to tears at this point.

In the final, Garozzo fenced magnificently and Massialas couldn’t disrupt the Italian’s attacks. The American found himself counter-attacking out of time, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to try and make Garozzo miss. It’s a tactic that has worked for him in the past but today Garozzo was unflappable and wasn’t to be denied even when he had a slight wobble at the end. A final running attack for the Italian clinched the gold medal 15-11.

The Analysis

As the title of this blog post suggests, I saw this Olympics as a changing of the guard. The names that have dominated men’s foil over the last 12 years are reaching the end of their time at the top. The three medallists - Garozzo, Massialas and Safin - are 24, 22 and 24 years old (Garozzo and Safin share their birthdays on the 4th of August).

Cassara, Joppich, LePechoux, Lei, Ota and Cherimisinov are all in their thirties and at times this season have looked to be desperately hanging on, hoping for a last big day in Rio. Sometimes the old magic is still there and the years drop away but those days are increasingly rare and may never return in full. Some will undoubtedly retire after these Olympic Games - Ota has already said this is the end for him - others may continue but the decline looks irreversible.

In their place will be new heroes. This year’s medallists will be joined by guys like Chen (21), Davis (25), Imboden of the USA (23), Lee of Korea (22), Italy’s Nista (23) and Luperi (22) Choupenitch of the Czech Republic (22), Cheung (19), Shikine and Matsuyama of Japan (18 and 19). Some of these have already won World Cups and the others will almost certainly join them before long. It’s the start of a new and exciting era for men’s foil and I look forward to the next few years to see who emerges as the global superstars. At the same time I’ll look back fondly on the guys who retire or fade out. They’ve been immense and I’ll miss them.

Video Reviews - Fun and Games

Section t42 3(b) of the FIE Rules for Competitions - its a thriller, isn’t it? The section covers video-refereeing appeals and you’re probably familiar with how it works. At senior World Cups, Grand Prix, World Championships and Olympics the video review system is an essential part of the action - 2 appeals allowed in a direct elimination fight, one appeal in each leg of a team match. If your appeal is successful you get to keep the appeal. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. There are a few issues regarding how to use your appeal(s) and there have, in my humble opinion, been a few occasions recently where the video review system has been shown to be deeply flawed.  

Since the introduction of the video-refereeing system, fencers and coaches have sought to get the best advantage possible from it. Referees understandably took a while to get used to the new technology and there was perhaps a tendency initially, in foil and sabre, to spot “incorrectly executed” actions in slow motion, and after repeated viewings, that would never be picked up at normal speed. Gradually referees have recognised that the breaks, extended preparations and delayed ripostes that they were entirely familiar with seeing and accepting at full speed hadn’t become heinous crimes when seen in slow-mo. 

And, of course, some coaches and fencers are better than others at judging when a video appeal has the best chance of being successful. To pick two Italians to demonstrate this, former Italian and Russian national team coach, Stefano Cerioni, has an almost psychic feel for when a video review is called for. His value to the teams he’s coached is undoubtedly enhanced by this ability. By contrast, I watched all of Italian superstar Andrea Baldini’s fights at the London Olympics, where he finished fourth, and I don’t think he got one right all day.

But my beef with the system is not that it brings an additional requirement to the range of skills a fencer needs to succeed but that the system is fundamentally flawed. Plenty of other sports use video technology and I think fencing needs to take a look at how their video review systems differ from ours.

In the vast majority of sports, unlike fencing, when there is a video review of the action it is carried out entirely by someone other than the referee (or umpire). Usually the person reviewing the action is not at court or pitch-side but completely disconnected from the field of play and their view is, effectively, only of the video footage. There is no involvement with the players and the only connection between the referee and the reviewer is by a microphone link. There is little to zero involvement by the referee in the decision-making process regarding the video review. Contrast this with fencing, where the referee reviews the action along with the video consultant. The referee’s decision is being challenged and yet he plays a major part in reviewing it. Can this really be the best way to ensure an impartial viewing of the video footage? Even if the video consultant disagrees with the original decision he’s got to get the referee to see it his way and he’s got to do that right next to the piste with the fencers and coaches looking on, often getting quite “animated”. For me, this is a crazy approach. Surely the idea of any video review system in sport should be to remove the official from the decision-making process when his original decision is being queried and to allow the crucial judgements, the most critical decisions, to be made away from the heat of battle.

I firmly believe that our technological advances can only achieve their full potential if they are applied in the correct setting and, at the moment, I don’t think fencing gets this right. It is undoubtedly far better than no video review system but it needs to make the next step if fencing really wants to ensure the highest quality of officiating at its showcase events.