European coaches help Asian fencers gain cutting edge

A history lesson in Eastern European politics is needed to understand the rise of fencing in Asia.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 sparked an influx of coaches and fencers from the Baltic states in the mid-1990s, when previously all fencing instructors were locals, Japan's national sabre coach Hiroshi Hashimoto told The Sunday Times.

Added the 50-year-old who competed at the 1992 Olympics: "Japan invited foreign coaches only after I retired in 1996 and our first coach came from Poland."

The arrival of the European coaches turned Asian fencing on its head.

Hashimoto said: "Previously, we only had short training camps overseas before a major competition.

"Now, each player competes in at least 10 international competitions and trains in several countries like Russia, South Korea, Poland, Venezuela, United States and Belgium each year."

Ukrainian Alexandr Gorbachuk, who won the European team championship in 2001, has been coaching the Japanese epee team since 2009. Given the Japanese culture of passivity, which showed on the piste, a change towards a more aggressive style was necessary, said the former Olympian.

"The Europeans and Chinese are big and tall, the Koreans are strong and muscular, and we have to be physical and quick with our footwork to win points. The Japanese prefer to keep a distance between themselves and the opponent, and that will not work in modern fencing," explained Gorbachuk, 42.

Fencing has been contested at every Summer Games since the inaugural Olympics in 1896 and has been dominated by Europe for over a century. Italy lead the way with 48 golds, followed by France (41) and Hungary (35). The former Soviet Union are next with 18 titles.

That hegemony is under threat. At the 2012 London Olympics, China and South Korea each bagged two golds. The total of four out of the 10 titles at stake was an unprecedented success for Asia.

Luan Jujie of China may have been the continent's first Olympic fencing champion - she won the women's foil at the 1984 Games - but it was compatriot Zhong Man's victory in the men's sabre at the 2008 Beijing Games that has really sparked interest in a sport long viewed as a Western pastime.

Xu Anqi, 23, is part of China's new generation of fencers. She won the epee team gold in London and is gunning for the individual title at the 2016 Rio Games.

She said: "That's the next step for me. Everyone in the team is hungry and that pushes all of us."

Meanwhile, the gap between Asia and Europe continues to narrow, said Xu's coach Daniel Levavasseur, 67.

The Frenchman coached his country's national team from 1981 to 1992 before leaving to work with French clubs, where he trained the likes of former Olympic and world champion Laura Flessel-Colovic.

He was recruited by China in 2011 to oversee its development into a fencing powerhouse. While one might have expected the transition to have been difficult, his victory with the women's epee team - his ninth Olympic gold as a coach - proved otherwise.

He said: "I love the personality of the Chinese fencers, it is very easy to coach them and the French technique comes to them easily.

"The team epee gold in 2012 shows that the European teams are no better than us in terms of quality. Getting a gold next year in Rio is not a question for China."

London was where South Korea made history three years ago with their first fencing team gold thanks to their men's sabre team.

The Koreans have been the leading fencing nation in the region, winning the overall title at the Asian Fencing Championships for six straight years since 2009.

While the sport may not be as popular in South Korea as football or baseball, it nevertheless enjoys significant financial support.

Before 2009, corporate sponsorship of the national fencing squad stood at about 350 million won (S$420,770) a year.

When Son Kil Seung, former chairman of the SK Group, which was ranked 64th in last year's Fortune 500 list, took the helm of the Korean Fencing Federation in 2009, private funding for the sport rose to two billion won annually.

Besides two golds, South Korea also won one silver and three bronzes in London, matching Italy's total haul of six medals.

World No. 4 epee fencer Shin A Lam, who won a team silver, noted that while the investment helped the Koreans improve because of more overseas training and competition opportunities, "it is also our Korean mentality and desire to win that gives us an edge".

And in an ominous warning to their rivals, she added: "We want to be the best next year in Brazil."

This article was first published on June 28, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.