Illustration by Sam Island
Illustration by Sam Island

In the men’s team foil, the last fencing event of the Olympics, Andrea Baldini expertly delivered the final touch to give Italy victory over Japan, 45-39, and its third gold medal.

Baldini also achieved a moment of redemption.

In 2008, after his win at the European championships, he was accused of having taken a banned drug. He strenuously denied the claim, but was stripped of his victory and banned from the games in Beijing. He was readmitted to competition the next year.

Coming into the Olympic Games this year, Baldini was ranked only 14th in the world, behind three other Italians. He was selected for the team anyway. He responded by coming in fourth in the individual foil -- several places above his two compatriots -- and by being a reliable anchor in the team victory. Many in the ExCeL arena knew his story, and were delighted that he finally had his gold medal.

The American team ended with just a single bronze in women’s team epee, compared with the haul of six medals -- a gold, three silver and two bronze -- in Beijing, which was their best performance ever.

Members of the U.S. squad will be disappointed, but when they look at the overall picture, they shouldn’t be. Seth Kelsey was fourth in the epee. The men’s foil team took fourth, as did Mariel Zagunis, the hot favorite in women’s saber, the event she had won in Athens as a 19-year-old rookie and again in Beijing. For Zagunis, particularly, defeat must be bitter. But Dagmara Wozniak, at her first Olympics, joined Zagunis in the final eight. In the men’s saber Tim Morehouse and Daryl Homer also reached the final eight.

Bright Future

In 2004, when women’s saber was introduced as a new Olympic event, the International Olympic Committee did not raise the number of gold medals for fencing overall, insisting that it remain capped at 10. The 12 disciplines -- men and women’s foil, epee and saber, team and individual -- were limited to six individual and four team events per Olympics, with two team competitions being dropped on a revolving basis.

This time there was no men’s team epee and no women’s team saber. Instead, these two disciplines held special world championships in April in Kiev. The U.S. women sabreurs, as they had done in Beijing, took bronze, while the men won their first gold medal at team epee. Add those two medals to the bronze in London, and the U.S. team ranks behind only Italy, China and South Korea (which has been the revelation of these Olympics with two fencing golds and six medals in all) in the league table of nations. The American men’s foil team, which so narrowly missed a medal, losing to the Germans in a fight for the bronze, has an average age of 20, installing it as immediate favorite for the Rio Olympics in 2016.

So there was some reason for disappointment, but immense hope for the future.

Other nations won’t be so sanguine. France, for decades a powerhouse, did not make a single semifinal, let alone gain a place on the podium. Germany, which led the world in the 1970s and 1980s, scraped together only the one bronze, in men’s team foil. Hungary won the individual saber, but was otherwise nowhere. Russia, a major force from 1960 on, and more recently the winner of three titles at last year’s world championships in Sicily, had a couple of medals but otherwise performed so below expectations that the team’s chief coach has already resigned. Britain, No. 3 in the world in the early 1960s, hasn’t won an Olympic fencing medal since 1964, and never looked as if it would do so here.

European Decline

Among the European nations, only Italy, which headed the fencing medal table with three gold, two silver and two bronze, will look back at London with satisfaction. Since the dawn of the modern Olympic era, Italy has won 48 gold medals from fencing, compared with 41 for France and 35 for Hungary. For all three nations, fencing has produced more gold than any other sport. It will be a hard way back for France and Hungary, given the continuing success of the Chinese in all weapons, and the brilliant performances of the South Koreans.

Last week, I spoke with Patrick Vajda, who in his day was peerless as a fencing referee and respected for his fairness and authority. He says that the current head of French fencing, Frederic Pietruszka, is only now starting to overcome years of lethargy by his predecessor. Hungary has a similar problem. It doesn’t help that some of their best coaches have been lured abroad.

Vajda’s day job is working for Marsh, the event insurance broker division of Marsh & McLennan Cos., which since 1992 has provided protection at the Olympics. So far at these games, things are looking good: Everything has opened on time, with no unforeseen accidents, no freak bad weather, no serious security problem. If Vajda could only insure against poor performances on the piste, he would have plenty of takers.

(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. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of his fencing coverage for Bloomberg View.)

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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.