If, like me, you’ve followed the progress of the international men’s foil circuit over the last dozen or so years, you’ll having been looking forward to the Rio Olympics with an almost rabid anticipation. As it turned out, Sunday’s competition provided all the drama, excitement, skill and glory you could hope for.
To start with I’ll declare my hand and state that I was looking for success for the British contingent of Laurence Halsted, James Davis and Richard Kruse. Davis and Kruse came in to the event ranked 5th and 6th in the world having both had victories in World Cup competitions this season, Halsted had reached the quarter-finals in last year’s world championships and the recent European championships. Hopes were high but realistic. As I’d said all along, almost two thirds of the competitors stood a chance of claiming a medal at these Games.
In the end, Halsted gave Haiwei Chen of China too much of a head start in his last 32 fight and couldn’t claw back the deficit. At the same stage Davis and Kruse made short work of Ferjani (TUN) and Sintes (ALG) respectively. Meanwhile, in the first massive shock of the day, Brazil’s Guilherme Toldo eliminated reigning world champion Yuki Ota (JPN). Timur Safin defeated teammate, and 2014 world champion, Alexey Cheremisinov. The defending Olympic champion, China’s Sheng Lei, was knocked out by Erwan LePechoux of France. Social media darling and 2013 world champion, Miles Chamley-Watson of the USA was eliminated by Russia’s Artur Akhmatkhuzin.
In the last 16, James Davis built an early lead against Safin but was gradually reined in and eventually Safin came through. James will be kicking himself but you can be sure he will learn from it. Kruse defeated long-time rival Andrea Cassara of Italy with a fantastic display of timing and distance to repeat his quarter-final performance in Athens in 2004. Toldo’s glorious run continued with a win over Cheung of Hong Kong. Italy’s Daniele Garozzo edged out 2012 silver medallist Abouelkassem of Egypt. Chen defeated teammate Ma and Meinhardt (USA) beat LePechoux on the last hit. Giorgio Avola of Italy beat four-time world champion Peter Joppich of Germany and world number 1, Alex Massialas of the USA achieved a comfortable win against Akhmatkhuzin.
In the quarter-finals Garozzo abruptly ended Toldo’s hopes and Safin over-powered Chen. Kruse fenced a very smart fight against Meinhardt to progress and Massialas staged a Houdini-like escape to come back from 14-8 down against Avola and make it through.
In the end there was little drama in the semi-finals. Garozzo eased past Safin 15-8. The Italian used his super-slow preparations and lightning fast lunges, strong quarte parry riposte and sharp close quarter work to dominate the fight. He has never won a senior World Cup but he had progressed pretty smoothly into the Olympic final. In the second semi-final Massialas was too efficient for Kruse and Richard couldn’t find a way to disrupt the American’s rhythm and Massialas rant out the winner 15-9.
In the bronze medal match, Safin and Kruse were closely matched in the early part of the fight but the Russian pulled away to take a 13-8 lead, helped by a couple of video reviews that saw hits initially awarded to Richard being overturned. But Kruse wasn’t throwing in the towel and started to pull back the hits to get back to 14-13 down and the momentum was with him. The minute break was arguably Safin’s saviour and on the resumption he scored the final hit to take the bronze medal. I was pretty close to tears at this point.
In the final, Garozzo fenced magnificently and Massialas couldn’t disrupt the Italian’s attacks. The American found himself counter-attacking out of time, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to try and make Garozzo miss. It’s a tactic that has worked for him in the past but today Garozzo was unflappable and wasn’t to be denied even when he had a slight wobble at the end. A final running attack for the Italian clinched the gold medal 15-11.
As the title of this blog post suggests, I saw this Olympics as a changing of the guard. The names that have dominated men’s foil over the last 12 years are reaching the end of their time at the top. The three medallists - Garozzo, Massialas and Safin - are 24, 22 and 24 years old (Garozzo and Safin share their birthdays on the 4th of August).
Cassara, Joppich, LePechoux, Lei, Ota and Cherimisinov are all in their thirties and at times this season have looked to be desperately hanging on, hoping for a last big day in Rio. Sometimes the old magic is still there and the years drop away but those days are increasingly rare and may never return in full. Some will undoubtedly retire after these Olympic Games - Ota has already said this is the end for him - others may continue but the decline looks irreversible.
In their place will be new heroes. This year’s medallists will be joined by guys like Chen (21), Davis (25), Imboden of the USA (23), Lee of Korea (22), Italy’s Nista (23) and Luperi (22) Choupenitch of the Czech Republic (22), Cheung (19), Shikine and Matsuyama of Japan (18 and 19). Some of these have already won World Cups and the others will almost certainly join them before long. It’s the start of a new and exciting era for men’s foil and I look forward to the next few years to see who emerges as the global superstars. At the same time I’ll look back fondly on the guys who retire or fade out. They’ve been immense and I’ll miss them.