Former British Fencing president Keith Smith has died from cancer at the age of 58.
By Peter Jacobs
President from 2000 to 2012, he was a leader of imagination with an infectious enthusiasm that motivated those around him, enabling him to get the best out of willing teams of volunteers. Throwing himself into fencing organisation from an early age, he led British Fencing through a period of great change. He was an outstanding competition organiser and a World class referee.
An ‘Essex lad’, Keith was educated at Brentwood School. A pupil of Steve Boston, he fenced in the England U18 foil team and in 1980 won the Public Schools foil championship, coming second at epee and third in the sabre. He then went to university in Birmingham to study History and Politics, competing for the university and in a British Student team and fencing for the West Midlands in the Winton Cup.
In 1985, with a BA Honours degree, Keith joined the history department of Whitgift School directly from university. He remained there for the rest of his life, rising to become Head of History and Politics. A colleague has described his teaching as a tour de force. In his spare time, he organised numerous trips, to countries ranging from the USA to Russia and many in between.
As his career progressed Keith was for a time a Housemaster and a Sixth Form Tutor, where he was able to contribute significantly to boys’ well-being and to guide them towards their chosen university. He also took on a role in the Whitgift Benevolent Society committee, his particular responsibility being to identify those boys in need of financial support. His nickname in later years of ‘Uncle Keith’ shows the affection and respect that the boys had for him, their understanding that he really cared for their welfare.
He committed himself to the school’s Combined Cadet Force, which he joined in 1986, retiring in 2019 as a Lieutenant Colonel after some 14 years as its commander. Through force of personality, charm and sheer brass-neck he persuaded senior officers of all three services to facilitate visits that probably every other contingent in the country could only dream about – on board a nuclear submarine and aircraft carriers, helicopter flights, tank driving etc. He set up cadet force partnerships with two local maintained schools and he and a handful of senior regular officers formed an MOD working party on such partnerships with a highly successful outcome. It was this project that led to his deserved appointment as an MBE. He also linked up with the local youth offender team to provide activities using the CCF and school facilities.
It is difficult therefore to imagine how he could still find time for his immense contribution to our sport – but somehow he did! While still at university he joined the Public Schools Championships committee, establishing a connection that continued up to his death. From 1985 onwards he also served for periods on the Epée, International and Youth, Refereeing (of which he was chair), Rules and Under 20 Championships committees and Schools Fencing Union, and was elected to the BF Board in 1993.
In 2000 Keith was elected British Fencing President and went on to lead the organisation through twelve years of unprecedented change and growth. During his presidency membership doubled and Team GB enjoyed international results not seen for nearly 40 years; but it was not an easy time to be in the role. On arrival Keith launched immediately into preparation and subsequent implementation of a Corporate Plan covering all aspects of fencing from participation to performance. Meanwhile in response to new requirements to access public funding for sport, British Fencing established a separate England Fencing entity (implemented in 2005) and formalised the relationships between BF and the Home Nations.
The awarding to London of the 2012 Games led to an explosion in government funding, already increased six-fold from the £60,000 of 2000 under Keith’s leadership, to a tightly controlled £1 million at its peak.
Finally, to meet with the governance requirements of a public funded sport, BF’s Board and executive structure was radically altered, with from 2010 an independent chairman and a number of appointed external directors providing additional experience and diversity, along with a greater degree of delegated authority for the CEO and executive team.
Keith’s extraordinary and infectious energy and enthusiasm, his leadership and organising skills were essential in bringing British Fencing through this tumultuous period.
His down-to-earth friendliness, accessibility and ability to motivate people earned him the loyalty of the staff in the office; and it facilitated everyone’s efforts to implement all these changes and to encourage activities at county, regional and home country levels, on all of which he expended much effort – indeed, his energy was phenomenal, he was once accused of having a twin because “he seemed to be everywhere”! His sense of fun and ability to entertain with fencing anecdotes happily oiled the wheels of all this activity.
As the lead representative of Great Britain internationally he was a tremendous strength. His networking skills, coupled with his other attributes and his unflinching support for all British post-holders, as candidates and in office, ensured that Britain was over-represented in the FIE and European Fencing Union (EFC). I quote one post-holder “I wouldn’t be on my FIE commission without his support. He was always seeing the potential in people and went out of his way to help them achieve it”. He himself, as well as being a member of the FIE Refereeing Commission from 2000 to 2012, stood for the presidency of the EFC in 2005. He was only defeated, by Alisher Usmanov, by the narrowest of margins; and he did become a member of its Executive Committee – and indeed was its vice-president.
His competition organising was a tour-de-force, preparing thoroughly, excellently organising on the day, using carrots rather than sticks, with an injection of humour wherever possible, be the events local children’s events or the Senior European Championships (in Sheffield in 2011) and World Junior Cadet Championships (in Belfast in 2009) – these last two made possible by funding opportunities that he grasped arising from the awarding of the Games to London. Somehow there was no shortage of volunteer helpers with Keith and he remembered to thank them all at the end. At the 2004 Olympic qualifying competition in Ghent, the Belgian theoretically in charge essentially grabbed Keith and said to him, “You’re running the competition for me”. British Championships were redesigned at each level into combined events over one weekend, resulting in much bigger entries. Many FIE World Cups were staged at Whitgift, with the kind support of the headmaster.
He was an outstanding referee, officiating at épée finals at three Olympics – Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000; and at every World Championships from 1990 until 2000, when he was ‘kicked upstairs’, to the FIE’s Refereeing Commission, acting as a refereeing delegate at the 2008 and 2012 Games. He also officiated at numerous Junior/Cadet World and Zonal Championships, World Cups, Grand Prix events and several Universiades.
It was at Barcelona that he met Karina Hoskyns, daughter of the 1958 World Epée Champion, who was the FIE photographer. They were married in 1994.
His refereeing and role as a delegate were renowned for their authoritativeness and integrity. He seemed always in complete control of the bouts irrespective of the pressures on him and in such a manner that the fencers did not try to argue with him. I recall, after a men’s foil World Junior Championships gold medal bout, the loser proceeded to vent his frustration by attacking the scoring apparatus with his weapon. Keith, FIE Refereeing Delegate, awarded a black card. The ensuing ruckus lasted so long that the medal presentation was postponed until the following evening. Despite immense pressure to withdraw the card Keith, absolutely correctly, stuck to his guns.
He strove to establish a cadre of British top class FIE referees to follow in his footsteps, helping and supporting those already qualified, seeking new candidates and working to improve the entire British refereeing ‘pyramid’; and warm relations were established with the BAF.
His leadership was leavened by sociability and by evident care for the people involved. At home or abroad, he always joined in the after hours’ socialising, helping maintain the best of relations and motivating everyone, sometimes involving very late hours – and ‘a few lemonades’, as he would say.
At the British Fencing AGM in 2005 Bobby Winton, then aged 90 and joint presenter of the Winton Cup with his brother Sir Nicholas Winton, stated that Keith was “one of the best presidents he had known in 70 years”.
In 2012 Keith stood down from the presidency to devote more time to his career, his family and serving his local community. He was awarded British Fencing’s gold medal and honoured with the role of British Fencing Vice-President.
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