altOCTOBER 20 - Fencing has appeared in every Olympics since the rebirth of the Games in 1896 and was a major success in Beijing but, as DAVID OWEN reports, a power struggle to run the sport has developed involving a Russian billionaire with links to Premiership club Arsenal


EN GARDE! - an intriguing duel is in prospect in the sport of fencing, with René Roch, French President of the FIE, world fencing’s governing body, again under challenge from Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire Russian metals magnate.


In 2004, the pair locked horns for the same prize, with Roch comfortably winning by 78 votes to 30.


Since then though, Usmanov has become head of the European Fencing Confederation and pumped much-needed cash into the sport.


Valery Dikevich, vice-president of the Russian Fencing Federation which Usmanov also leads, told me this week that the businessman had invested more than €3 million (£2.3 million) in fencing since taking over as EFC President.


That sort of money can make a big difference to a medium-sized Olympic sport, so this time I expect a closer battle.


I also think it is possible that the outcome may have consequences for the Olympic Movement as a whole.


Roch has never become an International Olympic Committee member.


But I would be surprised if Usmanov did not in time try to enter sport’s most powerful club if he took over as president of an Olympic sport.


This is although Dikevich tells me that the FIE presidency is his “only aim”.


Russian Government support


The Russian Government would probably welcome his accession to the Olympic pantheon during what might be a critical period for the ambitious Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic project.


And he does appear to be interested in the Olympics: according to Dikevich, he is one of the founders of a special fund to finance Russian athletes preparing for the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 Games.


In Beijing, Russia only just snatched third place in the medals table from the resurgent Brits, winning 23 golds to Great Britain’s 19.


This is not to suggest that Usmanov’s second bid for fencing’s top job is assured of success - or anything like it.


Having run the sport since 1992, the cultured Roch - who is 79 years old but looks younger - has vast reserves of knowledge and experience on which he will be able to draw.


Fencing also had a good Olympics.


The location of the fencing-hall all at the nerve centre of the Games, close to the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest stadia, helped to ensure a strong media presence on the spot in Beijing.


Once they were there, reporters sometimes found unexpectedly strong story-lines unfolding for them to write about.


My own visit coincided with a clean sweep for the United States in the women’s individual sabre competition.


This was good enough to attract former US President George H.W.Bush to the subsequent medals ceremony and, no doubt, to generate unwonted coverage for the sport in the US media before the Michael Phelps bandwagon really gathered momentum.


The episode left Roch looking an exceedingly happy man.


Exceptional TV viewing figures


Most importantly, viewing figures for the sport in its core European markets were unexpectedly high.


During the first week of the Beijing Games, according to one official, fencing was one of the three most-watched sports in Italy, France and Germany, racking up accumulated viewership figures of 400 million, 219 million and 155 million respectively.


The sport was also able, for the first time, to offer television rights holders coverage of every single fencer at the Games - a boon in particular for smaller countries whose athletes were often unlikely to survive until any given event’s latter stages.


Roch, then, should have a pretty positive tale to tell, which may be just as well for his supporters since Usmanov - who last year became a source of fascination for English football fans after an investment vehicle he partly owned bought a big stake in Arsenal football club - seems intent on mounting a formidable challenge.


Along with measures designed to make fencing more attractive to sponsors and television, Dikevich talks of Usmanov possibly investing $50 million-$60 million (£28.6 million-£34.2 million) in the sport between 2009 and 2012.


This would be both his own money and that of other businessmen, Dikevich elaborated.


“He knows many businessmen who are ready to invest money in world fencing,” he said.


Solid creditenials


Usmanov’s interest in the sport is not in doubt: he is, like Roch, a former sabre fencer and once formed part of the Uzbek Republic team.


But these days, of course, he has a great deal on his plate.


On making inquiries about him last year, I was told by senior fencing figures that, for all Usmanov’s largesse, they did not see him around very much.


Usmanov at that time acknowledged that he did not have a lot of free time to attend events, though he always tried to.


He likened himself to “a father who sometimes misses the beginning of the party because he works hard to provide a decent living for his family”.


The outcome should be decided on December 6 at the FIE Congress in Paris’s well-known Méridien Montparnasse hotel.


Even if you don’t know your foil from your épée, it might be worth keeping an eye out for the result.


David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the recent Beijing Olympics