Illustration by Sam Island
Illustration by Sam Island

Just before the start of the London Games, NBC announced it would televise the women’s foil and women’s epee, two of the 10 fencing events at this year’s Olympics.

This might not seem like a breakthrough, but in the rarefied and unheralded world of international swordplay, it was quite something -- a reflection of the remarkable success of American fencers at the previous games, when by the end of the first week of competition, they had six medals, 10 percent of the U.S. tally to that point. The women’s foil team and men’s saber team won silver medals in Beijing, hence television’s new interest.

One Beijing medalist, Tim Morehouse, who has tirelessly promoted the sport and who competed this week, wrote a memoir, “American Fencer.” He asked my advice on what to include, and I told him that the British sovereigns, dating from William the Conqueror, had a special champion who would fight for them, if they were ever challenged to a duel. Morehouse asked if I could find out how he might issue a challenge.

Right before leaving for London, I contacted the queen’s champion, who turns out to be Lieutenant Colonel John Lindley Marmion Dymoke. In coronations of new monarchs in days gone by, the champion would ride into Westminster Hall on a white charger, in full armor and with a plume of blue feathers in his helmet, throw down his gauntlet and challenge to mortal combat anyone who questioned the sovereign’s right to rule. There is no record of any such challenge, and Colonel Dymoke has a wholly ceremonial role.

Royal Duel

But what if, come the next coronation, Morehouse or another brave swordsman should announce he or she was ready to duel? Dymoke is a frail 86 -- the same age as his queen -- and has never dueled in his life. The post is hereditary, and his son, Francis, said he only once went to a fencing class at his high school.

Morehouse will have to wait for that challenge. On Sunday he and his teammate, Daryl Homer, although not getting on the podium this time, achieved the best individual results for American saber fencers since Peter Westbrook won bronze in the diminished games of 1984.

The real drama inside the London fencing hall came in the women’s individual foil event the previous day. The favorite for the gold was the 38-year-old Italian Valentina Vezzali, the most successful fencer, male or female, of all time. She is the first fencer to win three individual gold medals at three consecutive Olympics -- Sydney, Athens and Beijing -- and has won 13 gold medals at the annual world championships, six in individual competition. Coming into London, she was still ranked No. 1 in the world.

Vezzali made it into the semifinals, where she found herself up against a teammate, Arianna Errigo, who is 24 and ranked No. 4 in the world. The younger fencer, who trains mainly with male foilists and who fences like a man, has a vigorous, highly aggressive style. Errigo fought at a deliberately fast tempo, attacking relentlessly.

Vezzali, visibly rattled, narrowly lost. In the final, Errigo had to settle for silver, losing on the last hit to another Italian, Elisa Di Francisca, the world’s No. 3. But what caused the crowd to stamp its feet was the fight for the bronze medal: Vezzali against the world’s No. 2, the South Korean Nam Hyun-Hee.

Coming into the final 13 seconds, Nam was up 12-8, needing just three more hits for victory -- or only to be ahead when time was called. The two fencers had fought it out in the Olympic final in 2008, so Nam had reason to seek revenge.

Winning Riposte

To get four hits on a fencer of Nam’s caliber in only 13 seconds is unheard of, but Vezzali clawed her way back to 14-all. Then the bell rang for time. At this point the referee tosses a coin to decide which fencer will be proclaimed the winner if, after a minute’s further combat, there has been no winning hit.

Nam won the advantage. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Vezzali went back to the uncertain, slightly defensive strategy she had shown against Errigo and at the beginning of her duel against Nam. But the wily campaigner knew what she was doing. Nam launched a long, lightning-fast attack -- which the Italian parried, and made a winning riposte. She had won another Olympic medal and the hearts of everyone in the audience.

NBC must have been pleased. Yet as the audience made its way home a question lingered: the previous day Vezzali had carried the Italian flag at the 3 1/2 hour opening ceremony, a significantly taxing honor. Had it cost her a fourth gold medal? Or did she think she was invincible? Or a third possibility: for all her fighter’s spirit, was she willing to risk her gold medal for the honor of marching out in front of her team? She, like Morehouse, has written an autobiography, “A Volto Scoperto” -- “With Uncovered Face.” Maybe, in a new edition, she will tell us the answer.

(Richard Cohen, a five-time British saber champion, was on the British team in four Olympics from 1972 to 1984. He is the author of “By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Richard Cohen at racohen12@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.