Never-give-up Olympic fencer
Tuesday 09 March 2004
Albert Axelrod, fencer: born New York 21 February 1921; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 24 February 2004.
Who is the greatest American fencer? Candidates include Joseph Lewis, foil silver medal at the Los Angeles Games in 1932, and Peter Westbrook, who took the sabre bronze in 1984. There are others. But the single best result is Albert Axelrod's Olympic foil bronze in Rome in 1960.
Axelrod came in behind two Russians, but otherwise defeated the best in the world at a time when foil fencing was at a high point. No other American has come close to equalling his achievement, and of British male fencers only Allan Jay, world foil champion in 1959, and Bill Hoskyns, world épée champion in 1958, stand comparison.
There were 79 competitors in Axelrod's event in 1960, and they had to endure heat-wave conditions and fencing that ran without a break for over seven hours. Axelrod had competed in both the 1952 and 1956 Games, making the semi-finals in Melbourne, but by Rome he was 39 years old, nearly twice the age of most of his rivals, and scraped through the opening rounds.
He improved as the competition went on, however, and duly reached the round-robin (i.e. 32-bout) final of eight, which included three Russians, Viktor Zhdanovich (fourth in the previous year's world championships), Yuri Sissikin and Mark Midler (second in 1957 and third in 1959 and 1961); Witold Woyda, of Poland, who was to win two gold medals at foil in 1972; Bill Hoskyns; and two Frenchmen, Roger Closset and the defending Olympic title-holder and five-times world champion, Christian d'Oriola.
This was the first Olympics in which Russian foilists made their mark, and the fact that Zhdanovich and Sissikin took gold and silver may have owed something to their novelty value - though Zhdanovich fenced beautifully throughout the competition, with a sound defence and exceptional reactions.
It was a lopsided event, in that Closset, fighting against Zhdanovich, slipped on the edge of the fencing strip and dislocated his knee, forcing him to retire. The remaining bouts were fenced off, and under the cumbersome rules then in force Axelrod had to fence Woyda to determine their placing among those who had fenced Closset. Axelrod won 5-4, and next had to fence Mark Midler, the winner of the group that had not fenced the Frenchman, to decide the bronze. Again the abrasive New Yorker won 5-4.
He thus not only beat two exceptionally fine swordsmen, but did so in barrage conditions, when it was a test of nerves as well as stamina and technique. D'Oriola, several years younger than Axelrod, could come in only eighth.
"Albie" Axelrod was a member of five consecutive Olympic teams, making the Games in 1964 (where he went out to the eventual winner, Egon Franke of Poland, 10-9) and 1968 as well, but he was never again to reproduce his Rome form. However, he was ranked in his nation's top ten from 1942 till 1970, and was US champion four times - the last at the age of 49. Overall, he was a formidable fighter even on in to his seventies, and when I last visited him, two years before his death, his hand strength and speed of movement were still remarkable - as was his eagerness to demonstrate his prowess.
His success was the more unexpected given that he began life as a sporting liability. Born in 1921, in the Bronx, he would call himself "the proverbial 98-pound weakling". In an interview in 1998, he admitted: "I was born with a micro-murmur of the heart, was anaemic, and was excused from physical education throughout public school." After taking up fencing as a "safe" sport, he taught himself technique out of an outdated instruction manual, checking in a mirror to see he had the movements right. But he progressed, being given a scholarship by the well-known maestro Georgio Santelli to join his club. He went on to represent Santelli's for over 20 years, but ultimately left his old master for the most unusual of replacements.
Alexander Hern was part of the post-war Roosevelt-inspired Works Progress Administration, in which teachers were recruited to coach at blue-collar colleges and clubs. He was no fencer (Santelli was to ring Axelrod's mother and plead, "Don't let him go. That man does not really know fencing, and will ruin him"), but he read the classic literature about fencing and decided to create his own method.
Axelrod was inspired by it. An opponent's attack was an invitation to counter-attack, not retreat; a beat against one's blade the springboard to one's own attack, and so on. As Axelrod told The New York Times in 1966, "I have no purely defensive moves." It was to become his credo, and opponents learned that they had to contend not only with a never-give-up mentality but a technique that had little relation to the classical schools.
An electrical engineer by occupation, Axelrod worked for the Grumman Corporation after having seen combat in the Pacific during the Second World War. He remained a competitor for so long that he had little time over for fencing administration, although for nearly a decade he was a remarkably successful editor of American Fencing. He held forceful views on most areas of his chosen sport, but above all liked to defend his Rome achievement, about which he was understandably proud, if sometimes grandly cranky. In his 1988 interview, he ended:
One of the nicest compliments I ever got was from the members of the Russian team after the 1958 world championships. They came up to me as a group and said, "Axelrod, you fence like a tractor."
To anyone who understood Russia, Russian ideology, and Russia's Stalinisation and five-year programmes, he said,
That is the supreme compliment. The tractor was the backbone and very heart of the development of the farms and industry. Although "You fence like a tractor" does not sound too complimentary, it was truly a supreme compliment of its time.
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