LONDON (Reuters) - Fencing, traditionally a sport of gentlemen, has attracted world leaders and royalty to its ranks over the years with its chivalry and status as the most swashbuckling and romantic of all martial arts.
It is still often regarded in Britain as a public schools’ sport, but a group of youngsters from London’s East End are donning the fencing whites and showing they can compete with the best thanks to their fighting spirit and desire to win.
Many of those who train at Newham Swords are from mixed ethnic backgrounds and single parent families and practice their sport in an area with the highest knife crime figures in London.
But the fencing club is also situated in the Olympic borough of Newham where much of the 2012 Games will be staged, including fencing.
It is 2012 that is acting as a spur for the 35 youngsters, possibly aware that Britain’s last Olympic fencing medal was as far back as 1964.
Alex Savin, 13, who won silver at this year’s England youth championships, was in Stratford in 2005 when London won its Olympic bid.
“I was shaking with excitement when they announced it,” he said. “I cannot put into words what an incentive it is to have the Olympics here.”
The club is backed by the local council and Newham Sports Academy, which is headed by Tessa Sanderson, gold medalist in the javelin at the 1984 Olympics.
The academy spots and helps push local talent towards 2012 with medals in mind. It contributes to the cost of equipment, competition fees and a sports psychologist. The club also benefits from the financial support of a local millionaire.
Sanderson told Reuters: “This is one of the clubs everybody’s talking about.
“I know fencing is on the up, but it is usually thought of as a white, middle-class sport. But the diversity here shows what can be done.
“We are all in for 2012. The kids here are often the ones people don’t give any attention to, but if they win I will be on my knees because I know where they have come from.”
Newham Swords team manager Linda Strachan said fencing, sometimes described as physical chess, teaches the youngsters discipline and their background drives them on towards success.
“When they start, some of the kids say fencing is for posh schools, but it is a fighting sport.
“The youngsters are hungry for success. They don’t have much, so they fight for it.”
The young blades have won 83 medals this year and have a British youth championship bronze medalist as well as the English youth championship silver medalist among their ranks.
Last month, the club was crowned best youth team in London, taking the cup from upmarket Kensington and Chelsea.
Despite the success, the fencers still face occasional prejudice.
Some of the parents feel the youngsters notice the class and social distinctions when they travel to competitions.
Julian Faisal, uncle to 10-year-old Kamal Minott, said: “I suppose I am more conscious of him being black in a white man’s sport than he is because over the years it has been seen as a middle-class sport.
“Fencing seems a little left-field and the kit is expensive.”
When the jackets, breeches and masks go on though, the differences count for nothing. “He likes competing, winning and dressing up,” Faisal said.
School friends show a mixture of suspicion and ignorance about the sport.
Savin said: “First they asked whether I had a hammer and nails, thinking it was to do with fences.
“Then they asked whether it was like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but I said it was fencing, not stabbing.
“Then I tell them that if they tried it they would know how good it was.”
Many of the young fencers became involved through friends or special after-school training sessions.
“The football and basketball classes were full,” Savin said. “I went for fencing because not many people had gone for it and then I liked it.”
Most of the youngsters are thinking about London 2012, but some are showing the patience and tactics required of a good fencer.
Amol Rattan, 13, said: “I would like to be there in 2012, but 2016 would be fine.”
Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Dave Thompson