All news

FIE president, philanthropist and innovator. How fencing world changed in Usmanov era

Alisher Usmanov
© IOC Press Service
Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov has been re-elected President of the International Fencing Federation for a third time

Renowned Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov has been re-elected President of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) for a third time. Usmanov, who has been at the helm of the organization since 2008 and was previously re-elected to this post in 2012 and 2016, won the election in Lausanne by acclamation. International fencing made an unambiguous choice in his favor again.

Usmanov, the holder of a master of sports title in fencing, began his career in sports with the Uzbek national saber fencing team. He was the president of both the Russian Fencing Federation and the European Fencing Confederation. When he took over as head of the FIE, Usmanov managed to "reset" the development of this sport, starting with sweeping reforms, structural and financial reorganization, optimization of rules, and technological re-equipment of athletes and competitions, with a special emphasis on promoting the popularity of fencing.

In an interview to TASS, Usmanov explained why fencing had such a great appeal for him. First of all, he said, he liked the spirit of chivalry and respect for the opponent. Athletes performing under the auspices of the FIE are now vividly embodying the immutable values ​​of the Musketeers. And, giventhe elitism of this sport,in the good sense of the word, the mentioned values ​​become more attractive for the younger generation, whose eyes are riveted to TV screens,where gallant warriors in white outfitlunge, parry and riposte.

The TV picture of modern fencing, perhaps, has really become one of Usmanov’s main achievements.He has always dreamed of making this sport spectacular, dynamic and easy to understand. In the meantime, it was precisely the ability to understand what is happening on the piste and around it easily enough for a very long time remained a stumbling block on the road to enhancing this sport’s popularity. How can an ordinary fan figure it out, for example, the nuances of epee fencers’ duel? Two silhouettes on the luminous path, both waiting for the right moment to attack… Afraction of second and ... victory? Is that all?

Today, the TV system employed to telecast fencing events is in many ways an object of envy for other athletes. Special professional television crews are commissioned to do the job, fights are shown from different angles and with slow motion replays. To help viewers, there is a variety of special effects, which broadcast directors never stop experimenting with, and giant LED platforms on the floor, where you can see the names of athletes, the points scored, and even entertainment and information videos. These innovations have turned today’s international fencing competitions into sophisticated shows both for the spectators seated around and for those who watch the competitionson TV or the Internet.

To assess the quality of content presentation, just watch the promo video of the World Fencing Championship in Budapest 2019 under the slogan "A Kindof Magic", which became an award winner at many prestigious competitions in advertising. As for the Olympic Games, fencing events managed to take leading positions in terms of view statistics in many countries around the world.

Ilgar Mamedov, the head coach of Russia’s national fencing dream team (his trainees won 3 golds, 4 silvers and 1 bronze medals inTokyo), likes to recall how, after the decisivefights, he spent a whole night receiving congratulatory messages with expert opinions from people who just recently had had no idea of what his own sport, and sports in general are all about.

"Previously, only specialists were able to determine, for example, a 'touch for the right' or 'double touch', but after our successful performances, first in Rio in 2016, and then in Tokyo, people started sending me messages that made me feel amazedover and over again. And it was especially flattering for me to learn that some fans set their alarm clocksfor 4 a.m. to get up andwatch the Olympic fights," Mamedov said.

The broadcasts also benefited a great deal from a number of innovations introduced to the rules with the aim to encourage the rivals’ maximum activity, as well as changes to the sports gear - now the fencers do not have a long wire connecting them to a sensitive electronic system. Today’s modern wireless technologiesenable the referee to identify a valid touch and its accuracy. Very soon we will be treated to another knowhow in this sport: a VR simulator for fencers. The first one was developed by Russian specialists.

But the most important victory was scored by the world fencing under Usmanov’s leadership on the eve of the Games in Tokyo.Now we can only guess how much effort it cost Usmanov to attain success, but now it is a fait accompli - at a time when many Olympic sports are struggling not only to increase their representation, but just to retain a place on the list of Olympic events, the number of sets of medals in fencing contested at the Games has increased. This means that athletes’ chances to win an Olympic medal have also grown: now there are 12 sets of awards: six individual ones and another six in team events, with each national team consisting of three or four athletes. Before the Tokyo Olympics, fencers contested only ten sets of awards, and in each Olympic cycle they had to sacrifice two team medals alternately in three different disciplines.

The four-time Olympic champion in fencing, President of the Olympic Committee Stanislav Pozdnyakov, sees the clue to success in Usmanov's approach. “Alisher Burkhanovich's systemic approach to the development of fencing produced a situation where this sport at the Games of the 23rd Olympiad of 2020 in Tokyo was for the first time represented in the competition programas widely as possible, with the athletes having a chance to attain their Olympic dream and compete for medals in all disciplines in both individual and team contests,”Pozdnyakov told TASS. "This isthe international federation’s very important achievement."

Pozdnyakov also noted the significant, crucial changes aimed at popularizing fencing, fomenting interest towards it at the level of individual countries and regions, and involving as many enthusiasts as possible at the children's and youth levels. "In fact, the international federation in recent years has been creating new opportunities and conditions, where in a competitive sports environment the mass user far more often sets eyes on fencing and makes a choice in its favor. The federation’s president personally plays an important role in this, too," Pozdnyakov stressed.

For Mamedov, the head coach of the Russian team and a candidate for the National Fencing Federation’s president, it is extremely important that now the chances of athletes in a particular discipline to win a team medal do not depend on what the team tournament will be like during a particular Olympic cycle.

"This is a historic development.It has changed the whole world of fencing.Not a single athlete nowbecomesa “second-rate” one for a period of four years. Previously, the people who depended on the rotation system knew very well that they were becoming temporary outcasts, since their weapon in the team tournament was dropped from the Olympic program," Mammadov told TASS.

"Among ourselves we call Alisher Burkhanovich a wizard. He is capable of changing our sport, and sometimes even someone's life, in a radical way. We have witnessed this many a time over the years. You just cannotstop wondering how some important andvery remarkable things happen thanks to his decisions. World fencing was extremely fortunate he took over our federation. Many began to treat fencing, largely an aristocratic sport for select few, in a different way. Although we all know very well how hard it was to achieve this," Mammadov stressed.

Indeed, in a sense Usmanov is a wizard. It is anyone’s guess what it cost him to put together the unique collection of blade weapons that everyone can see on display in the building of Russia’s Ministry of Sports. Antique weapons, rare books on fencing skills and other unique exhibits were donated to the museum by Usmanov's charity foundation "For the Future of Fencing". According to experts from Russia’s Ministry of Culture, the collection is unique and the only one of itskind both in Russia and abroad. The collection can be seen in the new hall of the museum on Kazakov Street.The hall was designed by the leading scenic artist of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexander Kurguzenkov.

A little bit more about magic:among the ambassadors of world fencing there isa real constellation of world stars: Uma Thurman, Milla Jovovich, Alain Delon and Pierce Brosnan.All these actors, who have learned the art of fencing for their roles in cinema, are now integral members of a large sports family. Thurman with a samurai sword in hand starred as Beatrix in Kill Bill, Jovovich,as Mylady de Winter in The Three Musketeers,Brosnanas James Bond in Die Another Day, and Delon in Zorro.

Today, the FIE includes 155 associated federations from all continents - its geographic coverage is really impressive. At the same time, fencing remains one of the cleanest sports, in which there are no doping scandals. Usmanov-led fencing is successfully coping with this threat to the sport, as well as with the situation caused by the protracted COVID-19 crisis.

The FIE developed and is implementing a global plan to help fencers around the world. Usmanov also provided financial assistance to the athletes in an amount of 1 million Swiss francs. And, to round up the financial theme, we can state that under Usmanov’s leadership, the FIE has become a financially well-managed organization. According to media estimates, he donated over $80 million to meet the federation’s needs.

Also, at the cost of considerable efforts, a whole series of offline competitions was held in the 2020/2021 season. With all the required precautions taken and some restrictions imposed, qualifying tournaments were held in Doha, Budapest and Kazan. Also, there have been world championship for juniors and cadets. As the Tokyo Olympics showed, the family of fencers has coped with its challenges to become even stronger.

And finally, a few words about the universalization of fencers' capabilities. In an interview granted to TASS after the Tokyo Olympics, Usmanov said that the FIE achieved success in this regard: "Many athletes and teams won for the first time.In Tokyo, representatives of three continents rose to the podium. There were representatives of some countries that participated in Olympic fencing for the first time."

Asked by TASS why he devotes so much energy, attention and resources to fencing, Usmanov answered with words that explain a lot: "It is my love and my passion.It is the spirit of chivalry and respect for the opponent, which have come down to us from the days when your life depended on how skillfully you wield a sword. This is what makes fencing so wonderful - the excitement and the clash of characters and minds. Even though much time has passed and the equipment and conditions have changed, its essence remains the same. As far as my personal investment is concerned, fencing deserves such attention. Yes, I am a sponsor, and I will support fencingas long as I live."