The Olympic Games is fast approaching and as the spectacle draws closer and the excitement begins, we look back at a previous generation of Brentwood School Olympians.
Fencer David Acfield, perhaps better known as a long-serving Essex County cricketer, and fellow fencer Teddy Bourne, competed in memorable Olympic Games held in the 1960s and 70s.
Their success has inspired today’s young Brentwood fencers, who with a number of other Old Brentwoods, have first-hand experience of the arduous Olympic selection process.
David and Teddy look back on their introduction to the sport and recall memories of Olympics past.
Thirteen-year-old David took up fencing under the direction of teacher Jeffrey Featherstone. His passion was triggered by watching the likes of Errol Flynn at the cinema. His interest in the sport became all-consuming and he trained for seven days a week in winter until cricket took over in the summer.
David excelled in fencing and achieved academically whilst studying at Brentwood. He went on to study History at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and commented: “Somehow, I balanced the demands of academic work with the demands of two sports”.
He describes his selection for the Mexico Olympics in 1968 as “my best moment in fencing”. He represented Great Britain in the team events there and at Munich in 1972; was British Sabre Champion from 1969-72 and won a gold medal at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games of 1970.
Teddy Bourne thanks biology teacher and epee fencer David Falcon-Steward for his introduction to the sport. He attended a School fencing gala and was “instantly hooked”.
Teddy was always keen to find an alternative sport. With the example of other fencing pupils like David Acfield, Peter Kirby and Chris Green, he commented, “it was a great atmosphere in which to be a beginner. Jeff Featherstone was a wonderful, precise teacher.”
The solid technical foundation he gave his pupils was perfectly complemented by the tactical skills and development of individual fencers’ skills by visiting professional coach Professor Steve Boston, who remained Teddy’s coach throughout his fencing career.
David and Teddy both competed in the sabre event at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 when only amateurs could take part. Teddy recalls that “the sporting authorities were very tough on ‘shamateurism’, at least in the UK. This was rarely an issue for fencing at the time, as it had little popular following and there was no money from which fencers could be paid. We were glad to get expenses.”
Both young men thoroughly enjoyed their time in Mexico. Teddy, who had his twentieth birthday there, remembers it as “thrilling and daunting to be in such an exotic location. The shanty towns surrounding Mexico City had all been painted in bright primary colours. The gates of the Athlete’s Village were always thronged with crowds of autograph hunters who didn’t care if you were a famous athlete or an obscure fencer.”
David explains that as “fencing (was classed as) an ’intermittent endurance’ event, they spent six weeks in the village, the first four acclimatising to the altitude. This meant lazing by the pool, followed by a little light practice.”
David has a vivid memory of attending athletics in the main stadium. He watched champions such as Hemery, Evans, Keino, saw the clenched fist salutes of Smith and Carlos, and witnessed the miraculous long jump of Bob Beamon who took advantage of the altitude to establish a world record by nearly two feet, which stood for 23 years.
Teddy is a little rueful about the contribution of another Old Brentwood, Hardy Amies, who had designed the Olympic outfits for the British team. Unfortunately, these included red wool, roll-neck sweaters and double-breasted suits, which made for an uncomfortable time in the blazing sun at the opening ceremony parade!
David Acfield and Teddy Bourne were also selected for the sabre event in the 1972 Games in Munich. Both have memories of the killing of eleven Israeli competitors. Teddy remembers: “We woke on the morning of the terrorist attack and heard about it on the radio. It was a ghastly tragedy, and we know now how badly it was handled. Naturally it cast a shadow over the Games.” David chose to return home before the closing ceremony while Teddy decided to stay feeling that “to abandon the Games would be to hand a victory to the gunmen.”
Strengthened by his experience of two Olympics, Teddy was selected for Montreal in 1976. He found the Olympics a more testing experience than a World or European championship, particularly for minor sports not used to having the eyes of the world upon them. “It is always a real challenge to rise to the big occasion and I admire those who have the nerves to do so consistently.”
It seems unlikely that Brentwood School’s fencing success would have been achieved without the initiative and persistence of Jeffrey Featherstone, who joined the staff in 1953 as Head of Art and persuaded Headmaster Charles Allison to start a fencing club in the now demolished Old Gym.
His contemporary, Dennis Riddiford, has clear memories of Jeffrey. “We were always very good friends and were young together at an exciting moment for the School. Charles Allison was at his best. When Jeff mooted the creation of a fencing activity, most of us were a little surprised, as he himself did not look much like a swordsman. We had no idea how determined he could be. The results were quite astonishing and winning the Public Schools’ Championships became a foregone conclusion.”