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.
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.
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!