Kruse crestfallen as medal slips from grasp in play-off
British fencer edged out in bronze match Russian rival booed by crowd
Richard Kruse has a bone-dry sense of humour. He was beaten, narrowly, in last night’s Olympic bronzemedal fencing match against Timur Safin of Russia, but he could comfort himself with a joke he had made before the Games even started. For the irony of succumbing to Safin was that he had mischievously said that he hoped the Russians were doping because “it might make me feel better about losing to them”.
There was little doubting his status as the crowd favourite at least, as Safin and every member of his Russian support team attracted loud boos for having the temerity to turn up. Ultimately, it was scant consolation for Kruse, as Britain’s wait for a first fencing medal for 52 years continued.
We can now count Kruse as definitively Britain’s most renowned fencer since Bob Anderson, who played Darth Vader in all the
Star Wars fight scenes. It marked a momentous evening, too, for his Polish coach Ziemowit Wojciechowski, who absconded from his homeland during the Cold War to coach the British fencing team and who first coached Richard as a child in north London 22 years ago. Kruse credits his mentor with helping to lift Britain beyond “status as a third-world country in this sport”.
Kruse has his eccentricities, too, with a fondness for playing the bagpipes, an instrument that he once a week at his local scout group. Kruse’s limited Olympic pedigree, with a best finish of eighth in Athens 12 years ago, had hardly portended such performance here. He explained that he had succumbed at previous Games to his anxieties about the size of the television audience watching his every parry an thrust. But it is often more difficult simply to reach the Olympics than it is to advance to the medal positions once here. Britain had needed to beat Germany in a play-off in Baku to earn their right to be in Rio in the first place.
Fencing is not, by Kruse’s own admission, the most enthralling or comprehensible sport for the uninitiated. They did their utmost to jazz up the spectacle here at Rio’s packed Carioca Arena 3, with disco lights and an insistent Eighties soundtrack, but Kruse struggled to respond in kind in a one-sided semifinal defeat. Despite a promising start, he was outclassed 15-9 by Alex Massialas, the United States’ topranked foilist.
Kruse attributes his success in the sport to his skill at fusing the physical and psychological dimensions. The demands on the body in fencing can be imperceptible to the untrained eye, but the difficulty of constantly shifting one’s weight while wearing four layers of protective kit are self-evident. Kruse freely acknowledges that he would not win any prizes for athleticism alone, but his astute fencing brain was to the fore yesterday as he qualified for the semi-finals with an impressive 15-11 win over Gerek Meinhardt of the US.
Mental strength could not save him, alas, in his duel with Safin. In spite of a late riposte, winning three points in succession from 14-10 down, he fell 15-13 as Safin celebrated with wild abandon. Wojciechowski, watching on from the sidelines, looked desolate. Fourth place is a bitter enough pill to take at any Olympic competition, but coming fourth behind a Russian? Even Kruse, for all his droll jests, had problems coming to terms with this. His perfunctory handshake with Safin at the end spoke volumes. He understood the extent of the opportunity he had let slide.
Duel: GB’s Richard Kruse (right) against Alexander Massialas, of the United States