Foil fencing may not be the first sport you think of when you consider Russia, but for Artem Sedov, it’s a life full of championship medals and political spats
My first Russian friend turned out to be an Olympic foil fencer named Artem A. Sedov.
It was my first day in St Petersburg and I was standing in front of my new flat with a suitcase equivalent to my own weight. Artem came strolling up, a strong built man standing at around six feet tall, and offered to carry my suitcase up to the fourth floor.
What a first impression of Russian courtesy.
He recommended some of his favourite restaurants and gave me suggestions for sightseeing. We decided to meet again soon as he was surprised that a ‘fun-sized’ girl came all the way from Hong Kong to settle down in St Petersburg, and I was intrigued to have met an Olympic athlete on my first day.
A few weeks later, I went to a café on Ligovsky Prospekt to see Artem, where he talked about his athletic career.
Lucky to be lefty
Artem was an athlete from the age of five. He started out with tennis before entering the fencing world: “I played better than most of the kids of my own age. My tennis coach saw a lot of potential in me and wanted me to have a regular training.”
He poured some tea for me and himself and explained that once his family relocated to St Petersburg, he had to stop playing. Despite missing a chance of becoming the next legendary tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Artem managed to have a second bite at the cherry. “After settling down in St Petersburg, my mum brought me to the fencing hall and asked the coach if he wanted to take me as his student. He refused bluntly,” Artem said.
I frowned and asked why.
“Normally, fencing coaches in Russia only accept children above nine to receive formal training. I was only six back then,” he explained. Only after the coach realised that Artem was a left-hander did he decide to make an exception. “People usually find it hard to fight with left-handers, both in tennis and fencing. So I have an innate advantage of playing interactive sports,” Artem said.
The coach had decided to give him a foil, the lightest of the three weapons used in fencing, as he was too young to handle others. Since then, he has never dropped the weapon and become one of the greatest fencers in the world.
A few years later, Artem topped the podium several times in Junior World Fencing Championships in St Petersburg, receiving sponsorships from the city administration. When he turned sixteen, he was determined to be a full-time athlete and moved to Novogorsk Centre in Moscow, the main base for preparing the national teams of Russia. Artem’s achievement in foil fencing is undeniably outstanding. He won numerous titles in the European Fencing Championships, the World Fencing Championships and the Fencing World Cup.
“I have never paid for my equipment for the past 20 years. I was always the strongest sportsman, even my coach’s income largely depends on my performance,” said Artem with a confident smile on his face.
Fencing off politics
Just before the Summer 2016 Rio Olympics, news broke about a Russian state-sponsored doping scandal. Subsequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set a blanket ban on all Russian athletes from competing which was later changed to judge athletes individually in determining whether they were clean to compete.
The effects of scandal are still fresh. I asked Artem what that meant for him as a Russian Olympic athlete and he was ready to talk.
“Many athletes take drugs, not just Russian athletes,” Artem responded firmly.
He chuckled quietly and continued: “Fencers don’t take drugs because fencing requires athlete to have quick hands and feet, honed skills and most importantly a clear mind. So if fencers take drugs, they would probably perform terribly.”
When the doping scandal was in full-swing this summer, all 16 Olympic Russian fencers were cleared to compete. The BBC reported that the International Fencing Federation found the fencers clean after they “re-examined the results from 197 tests taken by Russian athletes in 35 countries, including Russia, between 2014 and 2016”.
For Artem, this came as no surprise.
“For sports that require athletes to have explosiveness and flexibility, like sprinting and swimming, many of those athletes take performance enhancing drugs. I personally believe that athletes won’t be able to make such incredible results without doping. Basically, it’s not a competition with people, it’s a competition of drugs,” he added.
Artem points to the poor diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States as one of the reasons Russian athletes in particular are hitting headlines. He finds it a bit unfair, claiming that the US National Swimming Team as athletes “probably take drugs as well, but they do it in a smarter way”.
I check up on this later, and as of today, the United States National Swimming team has yet to have tested positive for doping. Still, I see why clean Russian athletes feel the way Artem does.
“We have a lot of politics in sports. More than in life,” Artem lamented.
Sometimes, scoring adequate points in games does not guarantee you a seat in major sports event like the Olympics. “What is more important is the coach that you follow.” Artem said impassively.
Having an impressive result in numerous world championships, Artem should have had a secure ticket to the London 2012 Summer Olympic. Unfortunately, his dream was shattered after he found out that someone had taken his place through some “unorthodox ways”.
“I was told by my head coach after finishing the Fencing World Cup in St Petersburg that I was no longer qualified to play in the London Olympic. Politics is normal here. Some rich regions in Russia would bribe the head coach in order to send certain athletes to the game,” he explained. There is a saying: who controls the money, controls the world.
He then paused for a few moments. I had no idea how to defuse the awkwardness.
Remain on top in retirement
“Fencing has given me lots of good memories and opportunities to travel. When I look at the map, I realise that I have been to so many places for competitions. Fencing and travel are two of my favourites.” Artem’s lips lifted into a real smile and told me about his trips to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau for competitions.
Turning 33-year-old next year, Artem has already thought of retirement: “I understand that I have passed my athletic peak, but I still want to teach people fencing as this is the sport I enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I can’t be a full-time coach here because being a coach in Russia doesn’t really make money,”
“Does the Russian government not provide financial support for sports?” I questioned.
“Yes, Putin loves sports and he wants to show the world that Russia is a strong country through winning and success in sports. Yet again, there is always corruption in my country. Everybody knows about it. Even though Putin gives lots of money to support elite athletes, we receive not much benefit from the government,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Faced with difficult circumstances, Artem still managed to find a win-win solution, which he can satisfy his urge to travel, on the other hand teach young athletes to fence. “I have accepted several jobs from different countries. I don’t mind teaching my rivals to fence because I love this sport and I want more people to know fencing.”
He explained to me that he has coached for the Great Britain team in the past, and now he trains athletes in Moscow and in the United States.
“Although I have won so many titles and medals in my fencing life, nothing has been more satisfying than seeing my students succeed,” he expressed.