Over the past several days, I have watched some extraordinary fencing, in a venue that has been the most exciting and inspirational that the Olympics has ever provided. And I have witnessed the overthrow of the old order.
True, in the women’s individual foil, Italy took all three medals, and it swamped the opposition in the team event. Hungary, as it has so often before, won the men’s saber.
But in the men’s foil, the Olympic title went to China -- its first in the event. The silver went to Egypt, its first fencing medal, and the bronze to South Korea, another first. On Wednesday night, the men’s epee was won by Venezuela, which last won a medal in the Olympic Games, in any event, back in 1968. Norway took the silver, its first fencing medal, and South Korea the bronze, its first, too. South Korea had no influence on fencing even a decade ago; this week, the women’s saber, Kim Jiyeon, defeated first the defending Olympic champion and then the world champion to take gold.
In each of these three disciplines, the top seeds fell by the wayside, and new champions, from new countries, emerged triumphant.
One favorite who was beaten -- the most surprising loss, and for American fans the most heart-rending -- was the defending champion Mariel Zagunis. In the 2004 Athens Games she got her chance at the last moment when a Nigerian sabreur dropped out, and a spare place opened up.
Zagunis not only fenced her way to the gold as a 19-year-old rookie, but also repeated the victory four years later in Beijing. She went into the London Games as the world No. 1 and an overwhelming favorite.
For a long time she was on course. The four fencers in the semifinals came from the top of the world rankings: besides Zagunis, there was Sophia Velikaia, the reigning world champion; Olga Kharlan, the world No. 3, who was viewed as Zagunis’s main rival; and Kim, the No. 5 seed who wasn’t seen as a serious contender. Zagunis took her on in the opening semi, and for the first half of the bout all went according to expectation: The American took a commanding 8-2 lead on her way to the 15 hits she needed for victory.
In saber, when one fencer reaches eight touches there is a minute’s recovery period. Who knows what went through Zagunis’s mind in that interval? Her longtime coach, Ed Korfanty, could be seen advising her energetically, so it seemed he was taking nothing for granted. On the bout’s resumption, everything changed. Zagunis seemed incapable of finishing any attack, taking so long to make her final thrust that the young Korean had ample time to launch her counters.
In defense, it was even worse. Zagunis would often parry her opponent’s attacks, and then hesitate so long before making her riposte that Kim would make a second cut and get the hit. On one terrible occasion (for all the American supporters) Kim made an off-balance attack, ripe for a quick reply. Zagunis hesitated, so Kim cut at her again. It fell short, and still Zagunis held back. Not believing her luck, Kim cut a third time, and secured the hit. Even as the scores came level at 10 each, Zagunis seemed unable to change her game. When she finally lost, 13-15, it seemed that her anxiety to make sure that every hit was carefully delivered had cost her the bout.
In the other semifinal, Kharlan, possibly seeing an easy final ahead of her, also seemed overanxious, and Velikaia was the narrow victor. But she too fell victim to the Korean’s inspired form, losing 15-9. When Zagunis took on Kharlan to contend the bronze, both women looked so shell-shocked that in a lackluster match it was mainly a question of who would make the fewer mistakes. Soon Zagunis was left with nothing, in fourth position, and the U.S. hold on the Olympic saber crown, which had been theirs alone since the event was included for the first time in Athens, was broken.
The bout that took one’s breath away was for the gold in the individual men’s epee, where the Venezuelan Ruben Limardo Gascon overwhelmed Norway’s Bartosz Piasecki, 15-10. The Norwegian would advance with a quick step and then a lunge, but Limardo picked up Piasecki’s rhythm, and timed his fleche attacks to start just as his opponent began his advance. By the time the 6-foot-4 Piasecki realized he had to change his game, Limardo was ahead, 14-6. He pulled back four hits by parrying the Venezuelan’s dramatic attacks, but it was too little too late. Limardo took off his mask and raced to the small group of his countrymen who were waving their flags in celebration. “Not an irrelevant victory in Venezuela’s election year,” a friend beside me said.
It is not as if these medalists train in a fencing country. Limardo, like his two brothers who are also world-class epeeists, is homegrown. The young Egyptian, Alaaeldin Abouelkassem, who won the world under-20 championships two years ago, has a Polish coach, but mainly trains at home. All the Koreans and Chinese have masters from their own country. China’s new foil champion, Sheng Lei, destroyed the great Italian Andrea Baldini in the opening semifinal.
Maybe the old order will be re-established in the team events, which come next. The lack of a single European fencer on the victory podium in men’s foil is a shock reverberating through the fencing world. Outside of fencing, people have seen the sport as a European monopoly, and now it no longer is.
The implications shouldn’t be lost on the officials who make up the International Fencing Federation. Just a few years ago the organization asked the International Olympic Committee if women’s saber, a relatively new discipline, could be added to the Olympic roster.
The IOC, wary of increasing the number of events at the games, and possibly scornful of the limited appeal that fencing had, allowed women’s saber, but refused to grant an extra two sets of medals; instead, fencing’s 12 events had to be limited to 10, with two of the team disciplines to be left out each Olympic cycle.
Now, with chanting fans filling the hall, fencing has come of age in the way it is presented. Contestants from Africa, Scandinavia, South America, and most of all the medalists from China and South Korea have widened fencing’s appeal. The fencing federation has its chance.
Or so one hopes. This week we had the miserable case of the South Korean woman epeeist, Shin A Lam, sitting on the side of the piste in her semifinal bout, crying her heart out as officials took 80 minutes to debate her fate after a fault by a volunteer timekeeper undid her victory over the German Britta Heidemann. We now know that the secretary general of international fencing, Maxim Paramonov, interrupted the judges’ deliberations by insisting, against all reason, that the two women should fence an entire extra minute to decide the winner, after Shin thought she had won. As indeed she had. Such official bullying makes no friends. The old order needs to change, but in the right way.
(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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