A battler on two fronts: Jim Fox

The fight for his sport brings strength to combat disease for a hero of the Seventies. INTERVIEW

One figure stood out among the galaxy of personalities on parade at the 50th anniversary bash of the Sports Writer's Association last week. Indeed, Jim Fox stood out because he insisted on standing, albeit more stiffly than the rest, declining a proffered seat, his dignified presence a sobering reminder of a gentler, more romantic era before the pursuit of sporting glory became suffused by greed, drugs and duplicity.

Remember Foxy? Once he led the charge down sport's superhighway, a swashbuckling, Corinthian hero in an age when sportsmen were men, and women seemed happy to be ladies. And Foxy was a ladies' man, a ruggedly handsome, 6ft 3in dashing white sergeant, single, and single-minded who, on his own admission was a bit of a stud; swordsman supreme, in every sense. Now, at 57, the old soldier who was, arguably, Britain's outstanding all- round sportsman is a victim of Parkinson's Disease and fights on two fronts - for his own future and that of the sport with which he became identified.

Fox competed in four Olympics, winning a gold medal with the British modern pentathlon team in the Montreal Games 22 years ago, a bronze in the world championships in Mexico and was 10 times national champion.

A fencing master who literally foiled the Soviet cheat Boris Onischenko in Montreal, he was also a prolific cross-country runner, swimmer, marksman and horseman. Which makes it all the more tragic that such a sporting superman should have been struck down by an illness which attacks muscles and mobility - the same crippling disease that affects his famous namesake, the actor Michael J Fox and his even more famous sporting contemporary from the Seventies, Muhammad Ali.

Like them, Fox now faces his toughest battle, a situation he does not shy away from. There is no skirting delicately around the subject. He always tells people, up front, what's wrong with him. "I don't want them to think I'm pissed," he laughs.

Parkinson's is a degenerative lesion of the brain which affects not only movement and appearance but also the psyche. Many patients become depressed not only because previous activities are beyond them but also because the actual disease process can affect mood. Fox grins with wry irony as his youngest daughter clasps and tries to stem the shaking of a hand that once relied on absolute steadiness for its impeccable aim on the range.

He was diagnosed three years ago when he kept stumbling and losing his balance. He believes it may have been caused by a fall from a horse, but he isn't sure. There is no known cause, no known cure. An array of specialists, including some in the United States, have offered different prognoses, different advice and although he now faces his future with fortitude, it wasn't always like that. "About a year ago I was ready to give up. I was going down so bloody fast and I thought I might have two or three years left at the most. In fact one of the specialists virtually told me as much.

"I couldn't wash myself or raise my arms above my head. My missus even had to roll me out of bed. You begin to wonder what happens when you get incontinent and start to think about other possibilities. Is it time to call it a day? You know, Euthanasia, even suicide. You get fed up and wonder why you've been fingered when you've never smoked or done drugs and drank only in moderation. Then you slap yourself for being a morbid old fool and realise what a lucky sod you are to have had such a cracking life and start believing that there's a lot more to come."

In Fox's case the fact that he spurned self-pity for a vigorous, reborn self-belief was spurred by the positive effect of a relatively new medication, together with the incentive to fight for the preservation of a pursuit that brought him so much fulfilment. He takes 18 tablets of Roprinole daily, plus other drugs to relax his muscles and prevent nausea. Such has been his recent progress that next month he goes into a London clinic where a neurosurgeon will decide whether a two-stage brain operation can bring further improvement. "There's a risk, I know that," he said. "But my brain is damaged anyway, so I reckon it is one worth taking.

"I know it won't cure me and probably won't prolong my life, but if it stops the shakes and loosens up the muscles, it's all I want - just to disguise the symptoms."

There are various forms of Parkinson's and, unlike Ali, Fox's speech has not become slurred, although he does suffer tremors and increasing rigidity with a withering of the lower part of his body. But again, unlike Ali, he has not been reduced to a ponderous shuffle. Rather, he paces himself at a brisk trot, leaning forward to assist his balance.

A soldier from boyhood, Fox was made up to captain a year after his Olympic triumph. He quit the Army in 1983 and with his lump-sum pension got stuck into property buying, renovating and selling at a profit. Recently he became chairman of the Modern Pentathlon Association, operating from his home in Oxfordshire, a luxuriously renovated barn, complete with swimming pool.

After his many conquests he settled into happily married life and has three effervescent, athletic daughters, Neredie, 18, an accomplished fencer who is studying Chinese at Edinburgh University, 17-year-old Georgina and Roberta, 12, a potential modern pentathlete. His wife, Aly, is a high- flying accountant. Fox is still able to drive his specially converted Jag and regularly travels to events and meetings around the country. Already appointed OBE, he recently received the Olympic Order, one of sport's top international honours.

In a sporting world so disfigured by excess, Fox knows the modern pentathlon is something of an anachronism. Even in his heyday it was perceived as being practised in Penge by Frank and Peggy Spencer and, ironically, there is a real possibility that it could be replaced eventually on the Olympic stage by the likes of ballroom dancing.

Last year, the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, suggested to a German newspaper the sport's days were numbered. Fox fired off a furious salvo to Lausanne. It is believed that the Princess Royal, a fellow competitor in Montreal, also inserted a flea in the presidential ear. A swift retraction followed.

To help make the sport more televisual, what was once a five-day test of strength, skill and endurance has been compressed into one. And there is talk that cycling may replace equestrianism to make it more available to emerging nations. Fox has no quibble with the changes and hopes the sport in which Britain has always had a great tradition can entice more youngsters and women such as Kate Allenby, whom he believes might be on the medal rostrum in Sydney.

He fears that sports like modern pentathlon might go to the wall unless there is unity among those who pursue these so-called minor activities. His anger is now reserved for what he considers the petty bureaucracy that is suffocating sports like his. "Obviously we are very grateful for the subsidies we receive but the paperwork is just bloody crazy and I know some people who are actually frightened of the Sports Council, fearing that their budgets might be cut if they speak out of turn."

Fox now has another goal and a day spent in the company of this still unashamedly macho and indefatigably charming man convinces you he will achieve it. Britain hosts the world modern pentathlon championships in Millfield in 2001 and you can bet that the old soldier will be there on parade. Still smiling, and still standing.

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