No-one wants to be d'Artagnan anymore - sounds like a job for Zorro
The masked man on a mission to save Danish fencing is a British Olympian
Denmark’s duelling record doesn’t exactly fill you with optimism.
For starters, there’s one of its most celebrated naval heroes, the Norwegian-born Peter Tordenskiold. Promoted to the rank of vice admiral in the Royal Dano-Norwegian Navy in 1719 at the slender age of just 29 – it took Hornblower well into his 40s to climb as high – they nicknamed him ‘Thundershield’. One year later he was dead. You try fending off a Swedish cut-and-thrust military rapier with a ceremonial dress sword and a nickname.
And what about the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who ended up nearly dying in a duel in 1566? Difficult to know what’s more embarrassing: losing your nose or quarrelling over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula. It was a loss of face either way.
And don’t get us started on Laertes and Hamlet, the Laurel and Hardy of Shakespearean duelling. Not only did they manage to kill themselves, but also half the audience.
In need of a saviour
With a national record that bad, it’s clear Danish fencing needs some outside help, but who would honestly give them a chance. Particularly given that Denmark has not won an Olympic medal since 1952 and does not have a single fencer in the world’s top 100, foil or épée, men’s or women’s.
Its top-ranked fencer, Frederik Von Der Osten (épée), is the world number 127, while the highest ranked international team are the men’s foil at 25. As things stand, Danish fencing only has one bright prospect: Emilia Cecilie Borrye who at the age of 15 is ranked 193 for the foil. Make no mistake, the sport needs a miracle: so does anyone have Zorro’s telephone number?
Laurence of Anglia
Laurence Halsted might not be a Californian nobleman fighting the tyranny of the Mexican overlords, but he’s got a mask and the will to invigorate Danish fencing with a few slashes of his trusty sword. The British Olympian, who has called Copenhagen his new home since moving here in January, wants to help transform the sport, but is realistic enough to know it will take hard work and time – just like it did in his home country.
“At the moment it closely resembles the situation in Britain about 20 years ago,” he contended. “There was little public funding, and even less public awareness of the sport.”
Fencing, along with most other Olympic sports in Denmark, has to get by on minimal funding. Even at the highest level, the coaches and competitors are part-time. While at a club level, the coaches tend to be all volunteers.
The public regard fencing as being elitist and expensive, and therefore very few people try it out. The Danish Fencing Federation, for example, only has 1,500 members.
It will need a team effort
It will only be by tackling these problems, contends Halsted, that fencing can thrive in Denmark again. It needs more volunteers, and it needs more people – particularly youngsters – to try it.
“Funding, both public and private, grew in Britain thanks to the various community projects run by truly dedicated people who have brought many more people into contact with this fantastic sport,” said Halsted.
“Since the success of the Olympics, funding has increased much more than ever before, and recognition and membership is continuing to grow. This is what I’d love to try and recreate in Denmark.”
Halsted is joining forces with Hellerup Fencing Club to take fencing to the schools – international establishment like CIS and Rygaards at first, more later on – where children can attend introductory courses.
Elitist and expensive, but also exciting and engaging
“I know from experience that kids, as a rule, love trying fencing, and the more who try, the more who will find it a sport they will want to continue for many years,” said Halsted.
“It certainly is wonderful for developing mental as well as physical strengths, from children aged five to adults, and is the most exciting and engaging sport I know – and I’ve tried most of them.”
Halsted concedes that fencing does have a fairly elitist image, and that it can be expensive.
“It’s true that if you want to fence competitively, it is not the cheapest sport,” he said. “But now there are clubs around that will provide all the necessary kit to start, where all you have to pay is a normal club membership fee.
There are three major fencing clubs in Denmark: Trekanten Fencing Club in Copenhagen, Jysk Academic Fencing Club in Aarhus, and Hellerup Fencing Club. And the coaches at the clubs tend to be people like Halsted: internationals who are doing it for the love of the sport.
But if Danish fencing is to improve in the future, it will need more than a handful of internationals to make the difference.
With additional reporting by Russell Oliver Veber
Factfile | Denmark’s record in fencing
- The first ever female Olympic fencing champion was a Dane. Foil fencer Ellen Osiier (1890-1962) won gold in 1924 without losing a single bout.
- Osiier’s husband, Dr Ivan Osier (1888-1965), then spent another 24 years trying to match her, but had to settle for the silver he won in the épée back in 1912. Denmark’s most prolific fencer, the doctor won 25 Danish national championships in three weapons.
- In total, Dr Ivan Osier fought at seven Olympics – which is remarkable given that he missed three because of the world wars. His 40-year competitive span (1908-48) is an Olympic record he shares with just four others.
- But despite all this, Dr Ivan Osier does not hold the national record. Sailor Paul Elvstrøm also had a 40-year competitive span (1948-88) and competed in eight Olympics. And just to rub it in, he won gold at four of them.
- Denmark’s last Olympic medal came in 1952 – its sixth at the games since 1896 – and its last world title came in 1954.
- Denmark has not hosted a major fencing championship since the World Fencing Championships in 1952. It also hosted in 1932.
- The Danish women’s fencing team won three of the seven world championships contested between the inaugural tournament in 1932 and 1948.
- Denmark’s top-ranked men’s fencers are 127th (épée), 170th (foil), 37th (team épée) and 25th (team foil).
- Denmark’s top-ranked women’s fencers are 183rd (epee), 222nd (foil) and 33rd (team épée).
Factfile | Denmark’s Zorro is British Olympic fencer Laurence Halsted
Born in 1984, Laurence Halsted started fencing aged seven. Both his parents competed at the Olympics: his father at Mexico 1968 and his mother at Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976.
He made his debut for the British team aged 18 and went on to win the Junior European Championships in Hungary in 2001 – his country’s first major championship win for nearly 50 years.
Funding increased dramatically in 2006 following London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics – the same year Halsted turned professional.
A year later, he won bronze in the World University Games, the second biggest multi-sport event after the Olympics, and then silver at the European Championships in Ukraine in 2008, and bronze the year after.
In London, the British team narrowly lost to eventual winners Italy and finished sixth. For Halsted it was the culmination of six years of hard training, so he decided to take a one-year break from the sport.
As a frequent visitor to Copenhagen to take part in a January tournament, he had grown to like the country, so he decided to spend three months here. Like so many other Brits, he met a girl …
Turns out he’s in the right country. His nickname in the GB national squad is ‘The Kingslayer’ due to his likeness to the character in ‘Game of Thrones’ played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.