Fencing at the Tokyo Olympics impressed even the most sophisticated sports fans. The sport enjoyed its biggest ever representation at the Games: twelve sets of medals were contested; athletes from three continents rose to the podium and millions of new spectators around the world watched the contests live. International Fencing Federation (FIE) President Alisher Usmanov largely takes the credit for the upsurge in interest in one of the oldest sports and for its wider acclaim around the world. In an interview to TASS Usmanov shared his views on how the coronavirus pandemic has influenced fencing, on the performance of the athletes, and who, in his opinion, deserved a fencing ‘Oscar’ at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Veronika Sovetova: To begin with, a few words please, about the performance of Russian and foreign fencers at the Tokyo Olympics.
Alisher Usmanov: The Tokyo Olympics was a real triumph for fencing as a sport. For the first time ever, twelve sets of medals were contested instead of the usual ten. It was a truly landmark event for all of us. I should highlight the outstanding efforts of the IOC officials, the Tokyo Organising Committee, the volunteers and all those who contributed to arranging the competition despite difficult epidemiological conditions. As far as sports events are concerned, they demonstrated that the FIE has been very successful in terms of universalizing the opportunities for athletes regardless of their background and experience.
Many athletes and many teams scored their first victories — representatives from three continents rose to the podium in Tokyo. There were athletes from some countries that were participating in Olympic fencing contests for the first time. I believe that we are on the right track, and we will keep moving forward with still greater vigor.
As for my opinion of the Russian fencers’ performance, I believe it was excellent. However, Russian athletes will have to work hard to retain their leading positions. At these Olympic Games, their competitive edge was significant.
Veronika Sovetova: Who, in your opinion, deserves an equivalent of the Oscar Award in fencing at these Olympics?
Alisher Usmanov: At these games, there were quite a few bright, splendid moments. The way I see it, as far as the results are concerned, I believe that Hungary’s saber fencer Aron Szilagyi was the best of all. He is the first saber fencer to have become a triple Olympic champion in the individual contest in one discipline. Nobody has ever accomplished anything like this before.
Generally speaking, there were several athletes in Tokyo who demonstrated both excellent technique and achieved great results. But it is up to the FIE to decide who will be named the best.
Veronika Sovetova: You furnished great personal support and financial contribution for the International Federation and the fencers, when the coronavirus pandemic began. How significant was COVID-19’s impact on fencing?
Alisher Usmanov: The pandemic has created quite a few problems for international sports and fencing is no exception. The FIE sought to use the lockdown period in the most effective way. The athletes kept training at home — on their own or with teams. The United States’ Lee Kiefer and her husband Gerek Meinhardt set a good example. The sports center where they had been training in their hometown closed down, so they re-equipped the basement of her parents’ house and used it for training. They returned from Tokyo with a gold and a bronze. Alongside this, the FIE was conducting intensive online training sessions for referees. I regard it as a great success that we managed to conduct a series of face-to-face international competitions — in Doha, Budapest, Kazan and Cairo. The efforts were not in vain.
If you are asking me about Russian athletes, many of them have experienced the infection and this affected the results. For instance, I believe that it was a physical condition that prevented the Borodachev brothers from winning golds. On the other hand, the athletes will retain the motivation to excel at the next Games.
Veronika Sovetova: Are there any plans for considering amendments regarding a fourth medalist in the team tournament?
Alisher Usmanov: Yes, we will look into this matter. On the one hand, I believe a medal is to be won in a contest. This is just fair. However, on the other hand, it is likewise crucial to reward standby athletes’ readiness to substitute for a colleague. In some cases, they never have the chance due to the rule there can be only one substitution during the tournament. The way it happened in Tokyo. A special FIE commission will assess it.
Veronika Sovetova: Before, the referee would stop a foil fight the very moment a clash occurred. Now, there is a trend to make clashes, close engagements much longer, and riskier. How do you feel about this trend?
Alisher Usmanov: I am not sure that the word “riskier” is quite appropriate here. Everything is relative. Such clashes are unlikely to pose any real threat to athletes’ safety. Nevertheless, the issue has already been taken to the FIE’s rules commission for in-depth analysis.
Veronika Sovetova: Wireless technology is one of the breakthrough innovations introduced at the Olympic Games since recently. It makes fencing fights more thrilling and better conveys the dynamics and emotion. How do you see its effects?
Alisher Usmanov: You are quite right. Fencing at the past few Olympics was completely “wireless.” This has cardinally improved the visual effect of competitions and made them more spectacular. What is most important, this technology has made fencing more accessible to a general audience — we have identified an upsurge in the sport’s popularity on television, in the movies and on social networks. I believe that that was the main task, and I am glad that our sport is a source of positive emotions for its devotees around the world.
Interviewed by Veronika Sovetova
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