Karim Bashir is a commentator extraordinaire, bringing his fast and in depth knowledge of fencing to high level championships all over the world. He’s been the voice of fencing in commentary all the way up to the Olympics for many years, bringing new people into this sport from near and far as well as giving serious fencers the insight they need. He knows his way around the commentators booth and around the piste.
In this interview, we learn how Karim made his way from college fencing, through competition, and eventually to the Olympic commentator’s chair for fencing and other sports. It’s an exciting window into what it means to be passionate about our sport, as well as how powerful narratives can help us all to understand what it means to be a fencer. The answer to the question of how he got here and where he thinks the sport is going might surprise you.
Karim Bashir Interview
Igor Chirashnya: Welcome, it’s good to meet you virtually.
Karim Bashir: Thank you for inviting me.
IG: Let’s just jump in. Can you tell me what brought you to commentary?
KB: A fortunate accident that changed my life. It changed the direction of the my path. It was just a pure accident. My friends will say I talk a lot. I tell stories, from when I was young. Perhaps it was always inside me.
I went through my education and when I came out the other side from university, I was a fencer. Everything I did was to fence, to travel to Europe, to travel further, to compete internationally. This was the only thing in my head. When I graduated from university and I got a job near my fencing school so that I could finish work and go straight to training. When I was in my early 20s, my life was to wake up to get to fencing. I’d go to work and then straight to fencing for four hours every day. It was the same cycle every week. Sometimes I had competitions at the weekend, sometimes I’d rest. But the path that I went down until I finished fencing was all in order to get a foil in my hand to train and compete.
My job wasn’t the most important thing in my life. The job paid for fencing. And then when I finished competing, I decided I didn’t want to work in where I worked – in the IT industry. I literally walked in one day and I said, “Finished, I’m done.” My bosses were very surprised. I decided to travel around the world for a year because I had no idea what to do but whilst I was away I decided I wanted to work in the sports industry. I didn’t know what – in marketing or something. While I was away, I came up with an idea for a sponsorship platform. It was effectively online dating for the sports sponsorship industry in the UK. Instead of human beings interacting, you had corporate organizations looking for athletes to sponsor. Fencers and gymnasts etc were always looking for sponsorship but found it very difficult because in our sports it’s a once every four year thing that is the big – in between it is very difficult.
Luckily, it was very successful (mainly because of the Olympics coming to London) and it was at the same time I finished fencing. I was still involved a little bit on the outside, refereeing some competitions and just helping British Fencing. The one day I just said to them, “Listen, your marketing is terrible. Let me help.” By accident, I ended up running the media department at the European Championships and we got the chance to live stream it, but I didn’t think about having a commentator. At the last minute someone came to me and said, “Right, you have to do it.” So I did it. From the first minute I knew this is was my passion.This was for me. I enjoyed it a lot. It was my sport that I loved. I was very invested in it emotionally. I was invested in the event. It was a big, important event for Great Britain, for British Fencing. And I loved it. And I got some help. I had some people come in and talk about fencing as well. It was great. The Championships were great but they are long. You don’t understand how hard they are until you work inside such an event. I came out the other end and I thought, well, maybe I’ll never get this chance again, but it was great. I loved it. It was good fun. And very shortly afterwards, the FIE asked me to come to the World Championships and it didn’t take very long for me to make my mind up. Yes, straight away. And it’s just grown from there. It was a fortunate accident.
IG: You travel almost every other week, right?
KB: It was very natural for me to fall back into this routine because it was like competing in fencing again. You train in the week at home and maybe every three weeks you get on an airplane and you fly to Moscow or to Budapest or to Paris and you go and compete. I look back and realise that I wasn’t thinking about this at the time. But it was exactly the same.
I enjoyed it so much that I decided I wanted to get better and improve what I was doing, and so I trained myself. I took some courses and I listened a lot more. When you listen to commentary you’re always listening to a story that someone is telling you whilst you’re watching some pictures. This is a very simple way of describing it. Behind this, there’s a lot of work, a lot of preparation. I didn’t really know about it until I went and studied it. Then the Olympics came to London. I was lucky because I didn’t go after the commentary job. The BBC came to me! I saw maybe, 100 commentators all working for the BBC, the best broadcasters in the United Kingdom. I saw what they were doing – the research that was going on behind the scenes in order to deliver this story, this entertainment for the fans. It’s a big job. It’s a good job if you enjoy it like I do. But it’s a lot of work. I then picked up some other small jobs to start rather than just doing work for the FIE. It was now doing work for some federations, doing some World Cups. I was getting more experience on the job. When the Rio Olympics came, the BBC told the Olympic Broadcast Service. “Hey, you should get Karim to do the fencing in Rio.” I had a great time, had a fantastic time. From there, my commentary world expanded hugely. My phone started ringing. “Will you come and do this? Will you come and do that?”
When you work for the Olympic Broadcast Service, you can’t just do one sport. You have to do at least two. I did some Handball. I learnt about the sport in the six months before – how the game works and who the players were that were competing at the Olympic Games. I went and did the research that I’ve watched all these other people doing before me.
I enjoy watching sports. I like the stories. I like to hear about the athletes. I like to know what’s going on, changes in style to whatever sport it is. When you’re working in a sport that’s not your sport, you need to know much more of the lifestyle story. That part of the storytelling came naturally to me. I continue to work on all the research and framing the narrative. You want to tell the audience what’s happened in the background, how these people got to this place, what their previous records are.
IG: I’ve seen your commentating not just on fencing, but on other sports too. I watched your commentary for archery and speed skating. It’s interesting because fencing or speed skating are extremely fast sports. Things happen within a split second. Archery is something that they aim for half an hour then then there is a half second that the arrow flies.
KB: I can see more similarities between fencing and archery than I would have done before. The first thing is the tension is the same. It’s a top class international sport. It doesn’t matter what sport is. Archery, fencing, tennis: the drama is the same. The heat, the raised feeling is the same. There is a psychological battle going on and the pressure is influencing changes one way and the other. In archery, the pressure changes every single shot when it moves from one side to the other.
IG: How did you understand this level of detail in the sport that’s different from fencing and which you do not know that well ? Aren’t you afraid? To make critical, fatal mistakes that people intimately knowledgeable in the field, will laugh at you about a sport that you are not familiar with.
KB: I understand fencing, but even in fencing my knowledge of foil is far superior to my knowledge of saber. I put my hands up and say that. I rely on my network of friends, and I’ll bring in a saber expert to talk about saber because the timing is so close to foil and yet so far away. I laugh at myself now watching my first commentary from Saber in the European Championships in Sheffield because I would say now where I missed the timing. You have to separate completely and even I have to rely on the experts to this day.
It’s very nerve-wracking to start with another sport. Because you don’t know everything. You have the risk of not knowing all of the rules. When you come from a sport like fencing, we have so many rules and it’s so technical and so complicated. The level of expertise you need for fencing is probably right up there with the most technical sports when you compare it to other sports. I’m not saying other sports aren’t as good, I’m just saying that we have so many nuances that you can have two world class fencers standing on a piste fighting each other and a world class referee. When there’s a hit, all three people think different things happened. When I started learning about other sports, for example the handball, it wasn’t that it was easy, but this sport is a lot more simple to understand. It has it compliciticies – the tactics in the game for example, but in essence you score a point by putting the ball in the net. If the ball goes in the net, everybody sees this and agrees to this, right? It’s not like fencing. We have two lights on the box and you have to decide.
I saw other people doing other sports in 2012, which I didn’t have to do. I only did fencing for the BBC but I watched how other commentators did multiple sports. I learned to gather data, collect data, make sure I’ve got so much information. I now never use 80 percent of the information that I collect for any sport. Maybe the perfect solution is not using 10 percent so you don’t do so much work before, but if you have all this data, it gives you confidence. It’s the same with competing in fencing. If you do the training and then you go to the competition, you’re confident.
Speed skating, for example. I’d watched lots of speed skating before going to Pyeongchang. Hours and hours. I could see what the tactics were. I could see how people reveal themselves. I knew the stories of that final in Pyeongchang. The Korean on home soil. The British athlete who was disqualified in the previous Olympics in all her disciplines. The Italian skater who had a silver and a bronze and was going for her third medal. The stories were all in there. This is the perfect storm for a commentator to have a lot to talk about. I think it’s the key thing.
Your second question was about criticism and if you put your neck on the line, then you’re likely to get in trouble and you are putting one in front of one billion viewers. Maybe not this many, but a lot at the Olympic Games.
I try not to think about this. When I started working for archery, there was an executive producer called Dennis Harvey, he’s a guy from New Zealand. He’s worked in TV and sport for many years in different sports. He’s a great mentor of mine still to this day, a good friend. He said to me, “Don’t make this mistake – don’t think you know about archery like fencing. You are the lead commentator. You are the general announcer for this sport. And you’ve learned a lot over the years, but you are not an expert.” That has stayed with me to this day – that I have to be very respectful to the people that are involved in any sport that I’m commentating on. I have to make sure that I know where my level of knowledge is.
IG: Excellent. Be humble about where you are and what you bring to the table. What is your contribution as a commentator to popularisation of the sport?
KB: In the last few years, bringing the sport forward in production and promotion. There’s still a way to go and it’s a constantly evolving thing for all sports to stay ahead of the curve with regards to exposure and social media. For the Olympic Games and everything in between. The job of the commentator, I think, is dependent on the audience; the live stream audience that is watching round of 64 to the quarterfinals is very likely to be almost entirely fencing people.
IG: Even for the final.
KB: This is an interesting point, because I think with the progress we have made with the broadcast and with the coverage of fencing, the finals now are getting onto the Olympic Channel. Obviously the popularity of fencing in the United States amongst other natios and the performance of those fencers has really improved the desire for television companies to actually show fencing on the stations. The commentator’s job in the early rounds really is to keep the audience informed of what’s going on, not only on the piste they’re watching, but everywhere around. You have to break it down into the four quarters (Editor’s note: there are 4 bouts that happen concurrently in every World level competition, and they happen on pistes that color coded as Red/Green/Blue/Yellow) and talk about who the favorites are and try to keep everybody entertained. I think when it gets to that later stage, the job of the commentator is making sure that you are being respectful to the fencing audience, but also making sure that you are entertaining the potential new audience. You’re telling them the story. You’re telling them the route to the final. You’re telling them about the close call in the round of 16. You’re actually creating a narrative that anyone can understand. That is the job of the fencing commentator at the later stages.
There are a million different things that you can do to improve the sport. I think just looking at how looking at how other sports present themselves that do get lots of media coverage is a very good starting point. The key thing for me is to make the late stages good for TV and the FIE is doing just that. The finals “package” has to be less than two hours. You cannot keep the attention of people on television for longer than that unless it’s the Super Bowl, unless it’s the FIFA World Cup final, unless it’s the Olympic opening ceremony. The exposure, I think, has to be focused on keeping this chunk nice and small for the general audience with good commentary, with good lighting, with good scenery in the background, with the protocol. So it’s television friendly. But the audience on YouTube is bigger because there are more people doing it worldwide anyway.
Igor: When you did commentary for the BBC, was it for the UK only or was it as part of the Olympic channel broadcast that goes everywhere?
KB: The BBC had the rights to have cameras in every venue and position at London 2012. Other rights holders could come in and purchase positions, or they would purchase the pictures from the BBC so they don’t need to bring their own cameras. They just took the feed from the BBC. Some countries would also take the commentary, but only obviously English speaking countries. I don’t know whether the BBC coverage was taken in the United States, but I doubt it. I would imagine that your Olympic broadcaster would cover them with their own commentators. They would have taken the pictures from the BBC, but they would have had a commentator live. The United States is more difficult because you might need to go to an advert break. You have to have this communication between the United States and the venue in London to try to make sure that the commentator knew when to stop talking or to start talking. I know that my commentary went to Canada, it went to Australia, and it went to South Africa. When I was talking live at London 2012, my cousins in Johannesburg sent me a message. “I can hear you on television talking about this fencer.” A couple of people took pictures and my name was in the caption on Australian television.
IG: I think it’s probably a fantastic feeling that you have when your commentary is broadcast to so many countries.
KB: The way I look at it is I smile. I’m happy, and then I try not to think about it too much because then it’s scary.
IG: What differentiates you as a commentator?
KB: It will always to try to do better every single time. I think what potentially differentiates me in fencing in terms of the commentators we’ve had before, is that I know the sport and now I know commentary. I know the science, the format, but it doesn’t mean I’m the best. It just means I understand what the rules are, what the skills are, what’s required and what needs to be done. I can tell the story and I can understand the technical side, and I think that is quite unique. There are a number of commentators out there that have those same skills but not many. They know the sport they’re talking about and they’re a commentary professional. Very few come through the sport at a high level and become very good at being an expert. I’ve started my research for the Olympic Games eighteen months early. I’m predicting who’s going to qualify and I’m starting to shape my profiles, watching what differences they have in their fencing, changes of coach, all these things that you take for granted. If you know a particular fencer, you know they’ve changed coach.
I try not to listen to the really bad commentaries of mine but I think that you’ll always be able to find some. Moments in World Cups and Grand Prix during the day where I don’t sound as enthusiastic. That is not about being jet lagged or being tired. It’s more about there being only a certain amount of time that even I can talk. If you have to talk for, say, six or seven hours sometimes during the day, and then you get to the important part, then you’re on your feet and you can’t get back up again. You’re telling a story for a long time, so you have to stay fairly level so that you start to pick it up in the quarter finals, you pick it up in the semi-finals, even more in the final, and you finish at the highest point in the day.
IG: You cannot be emotionally discharged prior to the real event. How do you decide which part to really watch? How do you decide to respond with a comment?
KB: I’m usually travelling on the prelimary day of an event but I go online and follow the poules and early knockouts on route. It starts your narrative. It starts your storytelling for the competition. I collect the tables of sixty four and I go through them. Sometimes I don’t even have to look up the name or the rank sometimes. I work out what I think is going to happen in each quarter the night before when we get back to the hotel. Maybe at eight or nine, sometimes even later at 10 or 11. For two or three hours you are working out who could meet who and seeing where your potential clashes are the next day. Sometimes I will have the live results on a screen next to me, but often not. I like to work on paper. I like to have four quarters in front of me, and I write in the scores. It’s a habit. I’ve learned how to do it. You’re talking about something and you learn very quickly that if you’re having a thought, you can say this and look at the other three pistes and you’re not looking to see what the score is.
I’m only really watching two pistes and making sure that I’m talking about the piste you’re watching, but I’m keeping an eye on the other pistes as well. I keep this data going all the way through the day. Sometimes I miss it and I have someone sitting next to me who’s recording all of the fights. I can write down which piste I missed, because he can work it out from there. Then he goes back and he writes the score and he goes back to the recording. This is how I keep up to date.
You also try to go with something you can tell the story about. Sometimes there’s a very nice story coming through, like a 17 year old from Hong Kong in their first ever World Cup who has taken out the world number six in the thirty two and is now up against the world number seven. OK, this is a nice story. We’ll keep an eye on the other fights, but this is a nice story. Sometimes the worst is when there are three good fights with good stories. It’s very rare. Sometimes I try and guess which one will be the fastest, because if you go with the one you can get to one of the other three before it finishes.
IG: It’s fantastic. I can talk about fencing the same as you non-stop forever.
KB: It’s in two parts, almost like the story of this person and this moment, these two moments. It’s kind of a story of that I’ve been a fencer, I’ve been a coach, I’ve been a referee all the international level. The coaching was done at a very, very junior level, but we went to some international competitions. Now this rebirth into fencing in this new role, a commentator.
IG: I cannot stop this interview because I’m fascinated by the stories. A lot of them are about fencing, but it’s not for the hardcore fencing fans, it’s something that everyone can relate and understand and enjoy.
KB: For me, it is research and having fun. I enjoy it, and I think you get the best of me when I’m enjoying it.
I’ll leave you with this. There are three don’ts for me as a commentator. One is don’t stay up late. It’s very easy when you’re at these competitions to work until midnight and then you’re with your friends. Not with the athletes or the referees, but with some of the technical people or some of the organizers and you have a glass of wine at midnight. Before you know it, it’s two o’clock in the morning and you have to be ready to go in just a few hours. Number two is don’t sleep when you’re in a different time zone just because you need to sleep. You must get into the time zone as soon as you get there, maybe even before you get on the airplane, if it’s a long time. Go to the time zone straightaway. Fight to stay awake and fight to sleep even if you don’t want to. I think the last thing really is that some of the best stories, some of the best tips, some of the best advice, some of the best information I’ve got is because I don’t ignore anybody. I will talk to everybody and I listen to everybody. Whether it’s a spectator in the stands who says hello and oh, I’m watching this person. I’ll listen to what they have to say. Somewhere in there will be something – the armorer or the scorekeeper. Definitely. Obviously, the coaches, the referees, the athletes, these are the other people who will have something that you don’t know and so don’t ignore anybody.
IG: There is so much joy in this story that it is a great joy to publish it at the end of this miserable year.
KB: That’s very kind of you. You didn’t ask me one question, and it’s very important. Someone who didn’t know me, how would they be able to guess my sport? The answer is because when I call my dog’s name out in the park, I call for D’Artagnan.
IG: (laughing) Merry Christmas, happy New Year, and I hope to hear your voice back on the air again.
KB: I hope to be out soon, and it was a real pleasure speaking to you. Merry Christmas to all of you, you and your family.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Karim was so generous with his time. It is published with his approval on this blog.
We at AFM are so grateful to Karim Bashir for his candor. His honest answers and openness about what it is like to be a commentator at the highest levels gives us a wonderful window into the present and future of fencing! Thank you Karim!
Please look for Karim’s commentary at the Olympics in Tokyo!