— Published 20 June 2023

Fencing warns against abuse

As the numerous scandals have shown, not all sports are equal when it comes to the risks of harassment and abuse. Some bear the full brunt. Others think they are spared.

What about fencing? On paper, fencing does not appear to be the most exposed sport. Its culture, its customs and the maturity of its champions keep it off the list of high-risk sports. But since the last Olympics, its international body, the FIE, has adopted the adage that prevention is better than cure.

In March 2019, it announced the introduction of a policy to protect fencers, designed to foster an environment where fencing can be practised in complete safety. It had been unanimously approved at the annual congress held the previous year in Paris. This was no accident: the initiative accompanied the FIE’s ambitious programme to develop women’s fencing.

At the helm were two officials from countries where athlete protection was already in place at national level: Britain’s Georgina Usher, Chair of the Women’s Commission of the FIE’s Women and Fencing Council, and American Samuel Cheris, Chair of the Legal Commission. Working alongside them to define a relevant code of conduct is a team of experts, including medical and legal experts.

Georgina Usher, Executive Director of the British Fencing Federation, explained to FrancsJeux: “The FIE’s initiative was not taken in response to a particular case or situation. We wanted to prevent risks. Fencing is not the most exposed sport. But it is not immune either, particularly from the dangers of moral harassment. It’s often difficult to strike a balance, in sport as in the professional world, between respect and power.”

Starting in 2019, the FIE’s protection policy was presented and detailed at the cadet and junior world championships in Torun, Poland. A stand was set up on the competition site.

Since then, the train has picked up speed. An education programme has been rolled out for coaches and officials, at the highest level of practice and then at lower levels. An online form has been created to report an incident at an FIE competition. It can be completed and submitted anonymously.

A first webinar dedicated to the protection policy was organised in June 2022. It was attended by over 70 people. A second followed at the end of last year. The series will continue this year.

Georgina Usher insists: “The most frequent abuses affect fencing at a modest level, in clubs. That’s why we need to extend our protection policy to the national level. The FIE cannot do everything on its own. The relay must be taken over, in all countries, by the national federations. This is now our priority. To achieve this, we are stepping up our education programme to reach more coaches and officials in clubs.”

The stated aim is for as many member countries as possible to adopt an athlete protection policy. Great Britain preceded the movement back in 2014. The United States, where the subject has taken on a high-profile dimension, followed. Today, more and more countries are putting the issue high on their list of priorities.

The result is that “the culture has changed”, says Georgina Usher. “People are speaking out and more and more of them are coming forward. We’re learning a lot from the athletes about what to do and what procedures to put in place. At the same time, officials and coaches are increasingly well informed, both about the issues involved in a protection policy and about the importance of combating the scourge. People have realised that offering our athletes a safe environment is everyone’s job. We can now act sooner.”