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'I cashed in my life savings and my mother sewed on the badge'

IT WAS a different sporting world when Sandy Leckie won four fencing medals for Scotland.

Sandy Leckie  takes on ML Henderson of New Zealand  at the 1970 Games in Edinburgh
Sandy Leckie takes on ML Henderson of New Zealand at the 1970 Games in Edinburgh

Oxford-educated Leckie had to buy his own Great Britain blazer, and his mum sewed on the badge. A significant number of his contemporaries in the three Olympics he contested were Oxbridge graduates or undergraduates. But Leckie knew where his heart lay, even if his brother, George, did not.

Sandy won two individual Commonwealth gold medals for Scotland, and two silvers in three successive Games. He took foil gold in Perth in 1962, silver in sabre four years later in Jamaica, and then individual sabre gold and team silver in Edinburgh in 1970, the last time fencing was in the Games.

George opted to compete for England, and when the brothers met internationally it was: "pretty rough, pretty bloody", he recalls. "Very competitive, no holds barred."

Leckie has returned to his roots because he is to receive an honorary doctorate today at Glasgow University. Then he will carry the Queen's baton in Aberdeenshire where he spent part of his childhood.

In Edinburgh in 1970, Leckie carried the Scottish flag at the opening ceremony, inspiring him to prevent England sweeping all eight available titles. In 1986 he was again involved in the opening ceremony.

"I ran into the stadium behind Alan Wells who was carrying the Queen's baton."

Hopes of a third gold were thwarted by a freak injury as defending champion in Kingston. "I was injured in the first round of the foil, but recovered enough to hop around on one leg and get silver in sabre. I got a deep cut on my left knee but they managed to patch me up for the sabre individual. The guard got chipped or splintered.

"I had to withdraw and could not defend my title. England won it, which was annoying. The English were always winning these things."

Four years later in Edinburgh Leckie stopped them in sabre. "We weren't going to have a clean sweep. By 1970 I was coming to the end of my career and was not expected to win. The real challenger, David Acfield, was put out in the semis, and decamped the next day to play cricket."

Acfield was on Essex's books as an amateur. If he'd accepted money he would have ruled himself out of fencing. "With the main opposition out the way, it was less of a challenge. I was pretty lucky," he says self-effacingly. "Carrying the flag was very special and kind of changed my view. I was determined to do something. Against the English it was always a great challenge. Gold in Edinburgh was the highlight. Not only because I fenced well. I still play with an English opponent who says I was unstoppable on the day. But my toughest fight was against Gordon Wiles in the final - another Scot. It was worryingly close."

England's domination came at a heavy price for the sport. "It's the reason, I guess, why fencing has not been selected again, with England walking away with all the medals. It's not really across all of the Commonwealth as a sport."

In three Olympics from 1960 his best placing was the last 16 in 1968. "When I started, eastern Europeans were starting to challenge France and Italy. They were very professional: paid by the state, lots of time off, great sports science, but not always playing fair - funny stuff going on - a lot of drug-taking, to be honest, with team physios helping competitors along. It was a huge shock to see these highly skilled athletes, but it raised the game."

Leckie was Public Schools champion (he attended Merchant Taylors' in Northwood) and British junior epee champion in 1958.

He uniquely won all three weapons at the British Universities' championships while at Oxford and then claimed three senior foil and five British sabre titles.

It was an era in which the doyen of Scottish fencing Colonel Charles Usher, used to fund competitors to compete in London. The best facility in the '70s used former strips of the Meadowbank track for fencing pistes in a converted stable.

"In the early days there was very little money. When I was first selected, I cashed in my life savings and bought my own blazer on to which my mother sewed the British badge. You paid your own fares to overseas competition for several years. It was a sport in which you would got on if you had money and were able to travel. I was very lucky because I had done French and German, and got a job in Paris. I was able to train with the French.

"There were a large number of Oxbridge people in the GB team, and the services produced quite a lot.

"My father was from Hamilton, went to Glasgow University in the 1930s, and joined the Civil Service. My mother was from New Pitsligo where my grandfather ran the village store. That's why I will be running in Fraserburgh with the Queens baton.

"I spent most of the war years there. My parents were two proud Scots and I had a very Scottish upbringing, but went to school in the south after the war.

"I played rugby and cricket, and tried boxing as a new boy, for one session. I decided it wasn't for me. The ex-army physical training instructor's first introduction was with the gloves on. He biffed you a bit and punched you on the nose - toughened you up, as it were.

"He soon worked out who he could turn into boxers and those who would be better trying something else. So I tried fencing."

Leckie worked as a methods engineer for EMI in France: "a very nice time. I'd been brought up to regard wine as normal with food. Now I could travel all over France, and did so, for competition. I tried the food and drink of the local areas. It was quite a civilising time, and great for fencing. Wine is now my second career. I teach about it and run wine holidays."

He set up The Wine Education Service and tutors wine tastings. He did this in anticipation of an early departure from tobacco company Gallachers. "I started teaching about wine in my mid-50s, and set up the wine school when I turned 60. I am 76 - still working. It's a very sociable line to be."

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