Dame Mary Glen Haig: Fencer and health administrator who competed at four Olympic Games and went on to be a member of the IOC


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The Independent Online

Mary Glen Haig, who has died at the age of 96, was a leading light in the world of British fencing.

She took part in four Olympic Games from 1948 to 1960 and went on to become Britain’s first female member of the International Olympic Committee. Her working life was dedicated to dual careers as an administrator in the NHS and in her sport.

She was born in Islington in north London in 1918, four months before the end of the First World War. Her father, Captain William James, had competed in fencing at the 1908 London Olympics. “My father spoke a great deal about the 1908 games,” she recalled. “He was very proud to have taken part.” When he was asked by her school, Regent Street Polytechnic, to set up a fencing team, she became one of the founder members, at the age 14. Immersed in the sport from an early age, she remembered with fondness her father’s encouragement. “He even turned our billiard room into somewhere I could practice, which was not welcomed by the rest of the family, I can assure you!”

Fencing was at the time an unusual choice of sport for women. When asked about those who opposed women’s involvement, she later commented, “I think there were a lot of people like that, but it never bothered me, not at all. Fencing is an interesting game. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a game of outwitting your opponent.” Her first major victory was at the Women’s National Foil Championship in 1948, for which she trained while also running King’s College Hospital as its Governor.

Glen Haig’s first Olympic appearance was in London in 1948; with a budget of just £750,000 it became known as “the austerity games”. Without the luxury of an Olympic village, visiting athletes were put up on camp beds in former army barracks and schools, and with food rationing still in force many teams brought their own food. Glen Haig loved to tell the story of a dinner one evening: “In the house next door the French girls were eating beefsteak and chips. The smell was too much for us, so we slipped in to their dining room and joined the queue.”

Two years later, in Auckland at the British Empire Games, forerunner of the Commonwealth Games, she won gold in the women’s foil. She repeated that success in Vancouver in 1954 and followed up with a bronze at Cardiff in 1958.

In 1976 she played an important role in exposing the infamous cheating by Boris Onischenko at that summer’s Olympics in Montreal. The Soviet pentathlete had used a modified épée to trick the electronic scoring system into signalling a hit on his opponent even when he had not made contact. Glen Haig, who was watching from the audience, intervened and insisted that his equipment be inspected, revealing the electrical modifications that had been made. Onischenko was disqualified and the British team went on to win gold in the event.

Outside the world of sport, as an NHS manager, Glen Haig rose to the position of assistant district administrator of South Hammersmith Health District from 1974 until her retirement in 1982. When, the same year, the then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, sought a new member for the IOC committee, she was an obvious choice.

She brought expertise in her sport and further balance to the committee, which at the time had only two other women members, who had been elected the previous year. She remained with the IOC for the next 12 years, steadfastly refusing to accept any of the lavish gifts which were being bestowed upon IOC members in order to influence their choice of Games hosts.

She remained an honorary member of the IOC, as well as holding an array of other leadership and committee roles in sports organisations: she was President of the Amateur Fencing Association from 1973 until 1986, President of the British Sports Association for the Disabled (1981-1991) and Chairman of the British Olympic Association Medical Trust (1989-1993).

Professor Philip Bruce of the British Academy of Fencing, of which she was an honorary member, remembered her: “Mary was one of the most forthright and intimidating people I have ever met and she didn’t suffer fools lightly,” he said, “and yet she had fencing in her blood. During the mid-’70s I organised a fencing conference in the north-west and invited Mary [then AFA President] to be our guest of honour. Not only did she accept, she insisted on paying all her own expenses.”

She was appointed an MBE in the 1971 Queen’s Birthday Honours, subsequently promoted to Commander in the 1977 New Year Honours and Dame Commander in the 1993 New Year Honours.

The IOC President Thomas Bach said in tribute: “Dame Mary Alison Glen Haig lived a life full of passion for sport and was a pioneer in many respects. Her skills on the sports field, as well as in the medical field, combined with her warm personality, made her unique. She was a true inspiration.”

Mary Alison James, fencer, International Olympic Committee member and health service administrator; born London 12 July 1918; MBE 1971, CBE 1977, DBE 1993; married 1943 Andrew Glen Haig (marriage dissolved; deceased); died 15 November 2014.