I've just read the latest edition of The Sword, British Fencing's quarterly publication. It carries fencing news, results, and sometimes my photos if I've been to a competition recently. The other regular feature is 'Why oh why is fencing in crisis?' (which it usually is).
This time, Ronald Velden, one of the prominent commentators in British Fencing has hit upon a clever wheeze to develop the sport:
improving participation in the independent schoolsThat's right. When you have no Olympic medals in living memory, and the public perception of your sport is that it's a toff activity, what we really need to do is funnel more cash and attention (including taxpayers' money) to a small percentage of the mega-rich 7% of the school-age population who attend fee-paying institutions. Obviously there must be huge social barriers to their participation which need overcoming. I'm really bothered by the idea that we should recruit from a pool of privileged kids who are largely white and male. That's what led the Amateur Fencing Association's leadership to put on fund-raising events for England epeeist and British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley: a blinkered, smug and exclusive elitist mind-set.
It may surprise Ronald and his chums in the British Fencing hierarchy, but out here in the sticks we actually do recruit widely and reduce barriers to participation. There are clubs such as Newham, West Fife and Camden which recruit from the local population (very weirdly, Ronald is chair of Camden Fencing Club!). Some of them are even black, which is – sadly – a new experience in the fencing world. Their kids are competitive and hugely successful. Other clubs, like my own, offer free coaching and ultra-low fees (£2.50 for 2.5 hours fencing) but we don't do enough recruitment, relying instead on people finding us.
Other sports, particularly British Cycling, worked out a long time ago that success comes from recruiting from as deep a pool as possible, rather than relying on a traditional circle of insiders. The UK is notably unsuccessful at fencing and I think that's partly because it still recruits from the traditional class-based sources: private schools and the armed forces. In Italy, Germany, France and all of Eastern Europe, fencing is a normal sport open to everyone. It's certainly true that their social elites have a strong historical link to the sport, but participation is open to and affordable by all.
Apart from the argument about medal success, I detest the inward-looking, cosy smugness of the fencing hierarchy. Surely if you believe your sport is wonderful, as I presume we all do, we want to persuade everyone to try it. Fencing requires a set of athletic, mental and social disciplines which are good for individuals and transferable: we should be going in to primary schools and community centres, demonstrating what we do and taking in anyone who wants a go, whether they'll go on to be Olympians or just fat blokes like me.
I was going to say 'imagine going to the Government and saying "give us more money and we'll spend it on private sports"' when it struck me that the current crew would probably open the coffers enthusiastically.
OK, back to the real world shortly.