Billionaire fights to give fencing a bigger profile

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The worlds of football and fencing rarely converge. Yet, when the 2007 world fencing championship gets under way in St Petersburg on Friday, much interest will surround the presence of a businessman who has amassed a large stake in Arsenal, the London football club.

Alisher Usmanov, the Russian metals magnate, has become a source of fascination for followers of English football in recent weeks, since Red & White Holdings, an investment vehicle owned by him and Farhad Moshiri, a London-based fund manager, began building a 21 per cent interest in the club that leads the Premier League.

Usmanov long ago acquired this status in the rather less affluent world of fencing. It is more than two years since he was elected president of the European Fencing Confederation. He is also president of the Russian Fencing Federation. The St Petersburg 2007 website (www.fencing2007.com) carries a greeting from him, wishing the participants “beautiful and honest fights”.

Since his election, the Russian has built a reputation as a benefactor who has pumped much-needed cash into an unfashionable sport. “He has given a lot more money to the European Confederation than ever existed before,” says Keith Smith, a former Olympic fencing referee, who was Usmanov’s only opponent in elections for the European presidency and now serves as vice-
president of the confederation. 

“Entry fees to major competitions have been abolished, financial help has been given to organisers, and prize money has gone up considerably,” Smith continues. “This year we gave all the European champions €25,000. Without a doubt, he won the European elections because people were excited by the prospect that he would put money in.

“His personal impact on the sport has been very little but the money he has given to the European confederation has enabled the sport to be run better. That is good.”

Usmanov himself says he has contributed more than $2m prize money to the European confederation’s budget since his election. Of course, that sort of money does not go far in today’s Premier League but with an estimated fortune of up to $10bn, even the dizziest wage demands should not be beyond him.

His cash injection appears to have been well received by ordinary fencers. When I canvassed a UK online fencing forum (www.fencingforum.com) on the impact that Usmanov has had on the sport, one user, Marcos, commented on the excellence of a recent expenses-paid coaching course in Hungary, observing: “One of Usmanov’s focuses has been on supporting the sport in smaller European countries.”

Another user, Somerset-based Rugmike, said more bluntly: “At least he’s trying to [do] something decent with some of his lolly, unlike many.”

If all of this suggests that Arsenal fans have grounds to hope for an enhanced player transfer budget should the metals magnate become a figure of substance at the club, they may not find themselves bumping into him too often at Emirates Stadium, however big his stake. Senior fencing figures say that, for all his largesse, they don’t see Usmanov around very much. “As a president, he has been very hands-off,” says Smith. “He certainly has given plenty of money but on a month-by-month basis, I don’t think he is that involved with fencing.”

“At a pinch, we can work together – as long as he is present,” says René Roch, president of the Swiss-based FIE, world fencing’s governing body, who fought off a challenge from Usmanov in 2004. “That’s the big problem. I just don’t see how he could manage the FIE if he is not available all the time. I spend eight hours a day here.”

Usmanov acknowledges that he does not have a lot of free time to attend events, though he says he always tries to. He is, he says, “like a father who sometimes misses the beginning of the party because he works hard to provide a decent living for his family”.

This is not to suggest that the Russian has no empathy for fencing. He is a former sabre fencer who once formed part of the Uzbek republic team, having dedicated about 15 years of his life to what he terms “this noble sport”. Roch says that, in his day, Usmanov was among the better Russian exponents of the craft. “When we discuss something, his observations are pertinent,” the FIE president adds.

His candidate’s manifesto for the European presidency included a plea for better marketing of the sport. “I am convinced that we won’t be able to successfully develop fencing in Europe and around the world if we do not start to actively promote our sport, if we do not make it interesting, fascinating and comprehensible for spectators and television,” he said.

With another election due for the top FIE post after next year’s Beijing Olympics, some expect Usmanov – who found time this week to buy the art collection of Mstislav Rostropovich, the late Russian cellist, for the Russian nation – to mount a fresh challenge to 78-year-old Roch. The incumbent says, however, that the Russian has told him he will not run against him again. Usmanov himself will, for the moment, make no comment. 

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