Fencing history was made in Tokyo 2020 - Italian Women's Foil Team greets their opponents before the match starts
Italian Women’s Foil Team greets their opponents before the match starts

Anyone who either watched the events live or followed the results from Olympic fencing in Tokyo would agree – history was made at Makuhari Messe event hall. These were fascinating Games in general across all sports. There was incredible, real drama at each turn. Decades-old world records were broken. Huge topics that had been hidden beneath the surface of the sport rose to the top. Camaraderie between athletes shown through across countries, with athletes sharing moments of both glory and defeat in union and community. 

These Games were everything the sport can display, once again showing us why so many people across the globe come together for two short weeks every four years. Even those who barely follow sport in their everyday lives watch for the outcome beneath the Olympic rings. Suddenly, everyone across almost the entire population engages in a conversation about the human spirit, achievements, healthy competition, taboo topics, and the real drama unfolding before our eyes. 

Everyone who watched fencing at the Olympics should be awed by such a great tournament. I would call the outcome of the fencing competition at Tokyo as surprising as any we’ve seen in any year, challenging even the most seemingly inevitable predictions. These Games produced, in my opinion, the most diverse results we could imagine and added tons of new fencing records to what we’ve seen.  A lot of things happened for the first time in these Games. Surprises both positive and negative characterized the action both on and off the piste. 

Just a short while ago, I wrote about my predictions in the individual competitions. Now let’s take a closer look at my initial predictions regarding the team competition and how the events played out at Makuhari Messe. 

Men’s Epee Team Competition

My prediction – “The roster for the Men’s Epee Teams is very strong, with almost every team (well, with the exception of the USA, unfortunately) having the capacity to win any title. In my opinion, France, Italy, and Russia will divide the medals.”

The results – Japan, Russia, China won the Gold, Silver and Bronze in Men’s Epee Team. What an unexpected surprise! 

An inspiring, always on fire Japanese team beat the Americans in the last bout in the table of 16, and then in the quarterfinals took on the reigning champions of the last three Olympiad and the team who has been unbeatable since Athens 2004, France. In both matches, the Japanese were losing two touches prior to the last 9th bout of the match. In both matches, Koki Kano, their youngest at twenty-three years old and the anchor of their team, concluded the match with decisive touches. In the last bout against France Kano met one of the most decorated epee fencers in the world, fencing machine Yannik Borel. Borel’s towering figure and explosive power intimidate opponents before they start. There was no intimidation for Kano this time. He beat Borel 9:6, bringing the score to 45:44. 

Japan earned its first-ever Gold medal in fencing. France was denied their chance for a medal for the first time since their medal streak began in Atlanta 1996. It was record shattering for fencing and heartbreaking for France. In Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio 2016, France was the undisputed Olympic Champion in Men’s Epee Team event. This was supposed to be THEIR event. To lose it was unfathomable, but here we witnessed it. 

From my view, the Japanese were inspired by that win over the French team. They felt invincible when they took on Korea in the semi-final and Russia in the final match. Both rounds saw Japan sail through with relative ease, beating both teams with a substantive advantage: 45:38 against Korea and 45:36 against the Russians. In their turn, the Russians also ended a medal drought for the first time since Atlanta. It’s been a quarter-century since their last medal in Men’s Epee Team in the Olympics. 

If you thought that those are all surprises in Men’s Epee, you are wrong! Korea took their first-ever team medal with Bronze! Even more impressive – in the semi-finals there were three Asian teams and only one European team: Japan, Korea, China and Russia! Speaking on the globalization of fencing – what a great thing!

Men’s Foil Team Competition

My prediction: “I think the medals will go to the USA, Italy, and France in that order. I definitely hope so! The American Team is probably one of the strongest teams.”

The result: The Russian team, composed of very talented but young fencers, unexpectedly won against the Game’s favorites, the Americans. I could never have seen it coming. Judging purely from the record, there should have been no chance for the current Olympic roster of Russians to beat the Americans! 

I think the United States team, unfortunately, somehow underestimated the Russians and so lost in the decisive ninth round 6:1, with a score 45:41 overall to the Russians. The ROC then went on to fence against the French team, repeating Rio’s final. This time, however, the French had obviously learned from America’s mistake and took the final match to a completely different place, easily winning against Russia 45:28. France cruised comfortably to the Gold medal in each bout. 

It took France twenty years to get to the top of the Men’s Team Foil podium, and now they have won the Olympic title eight times, making them the highest winning nation in Olympic history. The top 3 teams in Tokyo were the same as in Rio – France, Russia and the USA, with the Russians winning in Rio and France taking the Gold now.

Men’s Sabre Team Competition:

My prediction: “The Koreans are undisputed leaders in Men’s Sabre, and I will put my bet on them to win the title. However, Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Russia are equally top contenders for the Gold.”

The result: Korea, Italy, Hungary winning Gold, Silver and Bronze. This is probably the closest prediction in men’s teams I made. I did not expect however that the Italians would beat the Hungarians – I would have put my bets the other way. 

This all played well for Korea. In the final match they met the Italians, who put all their spirit and power into beating the Hungarians. This allowed the Koreans to cruise easily to the Gold, winning every bout in the match and finishing it with a remarkable difference – 45:26. For the Koreans, this is the fourth year that the men’s sabre team was unbeatable. They took World Championship Gold in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and now they are Olympic Champions, defending their title from London.

There was no team men’s sabre event in Rio, which was the last Olympics to exclude some team events. Starting with Tokyo, all fencing events are contested!

Women’s Epee Team Competition:

My prediction: “Now the top contenders in my opinion will be China, Italy, Estonia, and the USA. While I definitely want team USA to win, I think that China will claim the Gold – this team looks the most promising to me.”

The result: Estonia, Korea, Italy won Gold, Silver, Bronze. Estonia won their first-ever Gold medal! These Games were historic for such a small nation. Kathrina Lehis won their first-ever medal with Individual Bronze, and then she led the team to win the historic title – Olympic Champions! 

The whole Estonian team fenced fantastically, trading touches against the Koreans in the final with no significant lead to either one. If the team owes the Gold to anyone, this would definitely be Lehis. She started the last bout with a score of 26:26 against the Koreans and won it 10:6, bringing the score to 36:32. What a match it was! 

The Bronze went to Italy, who bested China by succeeding in building a sustainable lead of six touches towards the last two bouts. Despite losing each one of them by two touches, they maintained their lead and won the Bronze with 23:21. This was quite an achievement for Italians, who had won an Olympic medal only once before, in the inaugural games for women’s epee in Atlanta 1996. For them, this was a long-awaited Olympic medal, 25 years in the making. 

I predicted that the Russians would not win any medal because they placed a weak roster, and it happened indeed. The nation won four medals in the last five Olympics featuring the Women’s Epee team event, two Gold and two Bronze. In Tokyo 2020, they finished last in 8th position.

Women’s Foil Team Competition

My prediction: “In my opinion, this should be the easiest one to predict: Russia, Italy, France, with Russia and Italy fighting for Gold and France taking the Bronze.”

The result: Russia, France, Italy. Unfortunately, the Americans didn’t succeed in winning their semifinal, losing to the Russians 42:45. They then lost the Bronze medal to the Italians with a towering score of 45:23. 

We so wanted to see the Americans on the podium. Even Lee Keifer, after her historic Gold medal win a few days earlier, or maybe because she gave it all in that tournament, didn’t succeed to make even a small dent in the Italian team. The Italians were so confident in their win and so comfortable in their significantly leading position, that for the 7th bout they brought a substitute Erica Cipressa to give her an Olympic status and a place with the Bronze medal. The Italians have medaled in this event in the last seven Olympiads, but for the French foil women, the last medal was all the way back in Los Angeles 1984.

Women’s Sabre Team Competition

My prediction: “With the Ukranians out, I think it will go down to Russia vs France. There are other great teams: USA, Italy and Hungary, but I think these three will divide the Bronze between themselves.”

The result: Russia, France, Korea won Gold, Silver and Bronze

The Russians were the favorites, defending their title from Rio, and they didn’t disappoint. Their star, however, in the final match against France, wasn’t the Tokyo Olympic Champion Sofia Pozdnyakova, and not the great Sofya Velikaya, but in my opinion, it was their #3, Olga Nikitina. She was the team anchor who turned it all around in the fifth bout. She started with a losing combined score of 14:20, then won 11:3 against Charlotte Lembach in a fantastic rally and put the team in the lead 24:23. This is a lead which her teammates didn’t let slip till the end, winning the overall score 45:41 and making the Russian team to be the first women’s sabre team in Olympic history to take the title twice.  

We saw a similar situation in the Bronze match between the Korean and Italian teams. In the 6th and 7th rounds, the Koreans succeeded to bring their initial losing score of 15:25 to a lead of 35:33 (20:8 in two rounds!). They won the last two bouts, securing themselves their first-ever Olympic medal in this event.

The results of the Olympics in fencing were fantastic to watch and will reverberate through not just this moment, but through the next cycle of fencing all over the world. We saw new and incredible champions rise up to the top of the podium, as well as old favorites find themselves challenged like never before. Like so many things in 2020 (and 2021!), this Olympics can be seen as a turning point and a new chapter. 

What never changes is the excitement of the Games! There’s still so much to talk about. 

An important note about substitutes in the Olympics

One of the most fascinating things that we saw in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was the use of substitutions. For anyone who saw the Games, this is an important point to understand because it very much affected the flow of the Games and the outcomes for many countries across weapons. 

The fencing team match is composed of three fencers from each country fencing each other in a relay fashion, totalling nine bouts that last for a total of forty-five touches, or 9 times 3 minutes. There is a fourth athlete on each team who typically does not fence and is called a substitute. 

In all the world and local fencing competitions, this fourth athlete is a rightful member of the team who can be both substituted during any match and who receives a medal if the team medals, even if the fencer did not fence a single bout during the entire competition. Moreover, in any subsequent match during the competition, any fencer can be a ‘substitute’ for any reason, often tactical. If the fencer was substituted in the match, there is a ‘reverse-substitution rule’, which means that the fencer can be substituted back one time in that same match.

This is not how it works in the Olympic Games. 

In the Olympics, the substitute athlete who didn’t fence at all does not receive the status of Olympian. They go to the Games, they participate fully in everything else, they stand at the sidelines in the arena, but if the team medals, he/she will not receive a medal. No matter how hard and important this athlete was for the team in qualifying for and preparing for the Olympics, if they do not fence, they do not get the status of being an Olympian and they do not get a medal! 

An additional trap that Olympic fencing coaches have is that once substitution is made, this athlete must fence for the rest of the competition, in this and any following matches. There is no putting the original athlete back in. One of the sad consequences of this rule is that if substitution is made, and one of the three athletes who are now fencing gets an injury, she/he cannot be substituted again and the team must withdraw from the tournament. They forfeit the match and their Olympic journey is over. 

We saw this happen in a couple of matches, which were canceled as one of the athletes in the competing teams was injured. Cruel? Unfair? Well, yeah… But that’s the rules.

It becomes an incredibly difficult decision whether and when to substitute in the Olympics. If a team goes for a medal, and the trio of fencing athletes does a fantastic job, should a coach make a substitution and risk a medal? Oftentimes coaches decide against this, depriving their fourth athlete of the opportunity but also keeping their best chance to get a medal. This is why many times you will see a three-person team on the podium. Don’t ask how the fourth fencer, cheering from the stands, feels. The answer will be they are happy for their country.

Departing Olympic Sentiments

These Olympics will most certainly go down in the history books as being utterly unique due to so many factors. 

We cannot discount the importance that the pandemic played in the Olympics this year – they were delayed by an entire year! The cycle of Olympic qualification is timed years in advance for all athletes, including fencers. They train to peak at a certain time. Families plan when to have children based around the Olympic calendar, jobs are put on hold for training, and college students take sabbatical leave from school to prepare. When the Games were postponed, it threw everything into chaos for every single athlete. Many athletes benefitted from this. Many athletes saw their Olympic dreams dashed because of this. In all cases, the Olympics are life changing, but this year they were even more challenging than ever before. 

In a normal year, the stands are full of cheering crowds of people. This is an important part of the feeling of competition, a thing that pushes athletes headlong into greatness as they take the fuel from the stands and push it into their performance. Alternatively, some athletes struggle with the crowds. Again, this is a moment when we saw some athletes benefit and others become challenged by the reality of an empty stadium. 

There are so many more things. Performing without friends and family to cheer them on. Constant nasal swabs and the fear that a positive COVID test would pull their Olympic dreams out from below their feet when they made it all the way to Tokyo. The financial strain of the last year and a half. The constant stress of living through this life-changing time period as athletes trained for the most prestigious competition of their career. There will (hopefully) never be an Olympics like this again.

In addition to all these historic and extraordinary things, from the standpoint of simply remarkable fencing, we saw simply remarkable, historic, and extraordinary things out of our fencers. After everything what we were left with was a fantastic display of what fencing is and how beautifully unpredictable it is. 

Bravo to all competitors. We are constantly inspired by your tenacity and your ability to keep pushing yourself forward. The Olympic Dream is one that we can all aspire to, and no matter where you are in the world we can be carried forward by it. Thank you and congratulations to all of the fencers and their teams!