The Tokyo Olympics are just under a week away, and that means it’s time for some serious analysis and predictions to ramp up before the Games begin!
This year is of course different from any other year in the history of the Olympics, both because of the yearlong delay and because of the extraordinary safety measures that will be taken to keep the athletes safe. No live audiences will be sitting in the stands, so everyone gets the same view from home that each of us does! This year’s Olympics are called Tokyo 2020, even though they take place in 2021. You’ll see both years talked about interchangeably, but know that they’re the same Games.
Another new piece this year is that all sections will be included in the Olympics for fencing for the first time – team and individual for both genders and all sports. That means more fencing!
The qualification for the Olympics this year has been unique, with countries all over the world modifying their paths thanks to the cancellation of so many tournaments over the last year and a half. None of that matters anymore, because now we know who’s qualified and who isn’t. It all comes down to the big competition now. But how will it all play out? That’s the big question we all want to know. Let’s get started.
Note: The insight you read below is based on the final qualification for the Olympics in fencing, which you can find here.
Who is competing in the Olympics?
In a nutshell, Olympic fencing qualification is based first on the team qualification. If a country’s team qualifies in a given event, then those three team members also qualify for individual fencing competition. There are a total of eight teams that qualify, so twenty-four fencers (the majority of the pool) get there through the team qualification.
We then add one or two top-ranked fencers from the four zones, then the winner of the Olympic qualifier. The host country, Japan this year, gets to spread eight fencers around to any event they choose if they didn’t have someone qualify via the other paths, up to three fencers or one team in any event.
This year, there are only three countries that qualified for all six team events – women and men in each of the three disciplines. These are Italy, Russia, and the United States. Each of these countries will have the maximum number of fencers possible in competition – eighteen!
How is this possible if Europe dominates fencing? Though Europe has the most top-ranked fencers and fencing teams, that also means it’s highly competitive. There are four zones – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia/Oceania. Many of the top-ranked fencers are competing within the European zone for a precious few sports. While the top four countries qualify first, there is only one country from the European continent that can qualify from the 5th-16th position. That makes the fight for that position incredibly tough and also highly important.
With all of that fencing talent concentrated in Europe, it’s very difficult to rise to the top. That also means that the European fencers who do make it through will be very difficult to beat. On the other hand, the easiest zone to qualify for the Olympics in fencing is Africa, because fencing is still developing there. In general, a fencer who is ranking in the top 16 in the world would have a high chance of Olympic qualification.
Most fencers who get to that elite level come from Europe, followed by Asia, the Americas, and Africa. That doesn’t diminish the talent of those fencers from less competitive places, not in the slightest. It’s all about understanding the dynamics of the process.
Who isn’t fencing in Tokyo
Almost as interesting as who did make it into the Olympics this year is who didn’t. Some traditional countries that produced multiple Olympic Champions in the past didn’t qualify in their usual events. It will absolutely make things interesting in 2021!
Here’s an example. In Women’s Epee, Ukraine and France (epee powerhouses) finished a little behind Estonia in the team ranking and didn’t make it. Estonia itself made it to the Olympics only because Egypt, the highest-ranked team in Africa, didn’t make it to the top 16 in the final team ranking. Egypt ranked 17th.
Another example is the Women’s Sabre. One of the strongest teams, Ukraine, led by one of the best ever fencers Olga Kharlan, didn’t make it as a team. They finished overall 6th in the world ranking, behind Hungary. Hungary was the top European team in the 5-16 position. A difference here from Women’s Epee is that one team from Africa, Tunisia, made it to the top 16 and denied Ukraine their chance to put a team in the Women’s Sabre event. We’ll see Kharlan, one of the most decorated sabre fencers and the reigning world champion, trying to take the Olympic Gold single-handedly. It’ll be worth watching.
Part of what makes the Olympics in fencing so compelling and fascinating is that there are different rules for who can fence in terms of team and individual qualification. If a fencer doesn’t qualify for the Games via his/her country’s team but they are individually ranked as one of the top from their zone, then only that person is allowed to compete. If a country qualifies as a team, then they may put any three fencers in the individual event.
The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo offer an astonishing example of this with Russia. In Men’s Foil and Women’s Epee, the Russian team who worked so hard to qualify for the Olympics won’t be the one who competes in Tokyo! This is extreme in the case of men’s foil, where the entire team consists of basically junior fencers. They are incredibly talented and utterly promising athletes, but very young nevertheless. None of the fencers from the team who won the Olympic Gold in Rio and who were ranked in the top 4 in the world, allowing them to directly qualify for the Olympics, will be fencing at all individually. We see a similar story playing out with the Russian Women’s Epee team.
Olympic fencing event predictions
Let’s go into each discipline individually. In general, predicting the outcome of the Olympic Games is a thankless job, but it’s fun nevertheless. I’ll dare to try.
As with any prediction, whatever comes below is me thinking aloud. It would be fun to hear your opinion in the comments and to have this discussion!
- Team Men’s Epee: 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.
- Individual Men’s Epee: Individually, it is much more difficult to predict, but France’s Borrel, Russian’s Bida, Hungary’s Siklosi, Venezuela’s Limardo, Swiss Heinzer, and any Italian can claim the title.
- Team Men’s Foil: With the change in the Russian team roster, I think they have decreased their chances for a medal. In foil, there is a huge gap in the experience. Germany’s team is the most experienced, and between the team members every possible title has been held in the last 18 (!!!) years. This includes World Champions (Joppich) to Olympic Champions (Kleinbrink). The Russian team, one of the constant contenders for the medal, is also one of the least experienced on the senior circle in their current roster. 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 blend of experience (Massialas, Meinhardt and Imboden) with youthful eagerness (Itkin) should bring a great result.
- Individual Men’s Foil: In my opinion, it will go down to anyone from the American Team (Massialas, Meinhardt, Itkin), anyone from Italian team (Garozzo, Foconi, Cassara) and the French Lefort. Narrowing it down, I would put my bets on Meinhardt, Focony, and Lefort.
- Team Men’s Sabre: In my opinion, Men’s Sabre sports the most reasonable teams for the Olympics. Inside the teams, it seems that the rosters are also well deserved and predictable. Here there are no surprises like those we see in Men’s Foil and in French Men’s Epee. 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. Unfortunately, I don’t see the Americans winning the medal, and I sincerely hope to be mistaken in these predictions.
- Individual Men’s Sabre: Here the situation is interesting, as so many great saberists are contending for the Gold. Szhilagy will be out to claim his third Gold, and he is adamant about reaching this goal. The problem is that the Koreans have now become a world superpower, and any other fencers from the top 10 FIE ranking can equally fight for the gold. I will predict Szhilagy, Oh, and Derswitz will be on the podium
- Team Women’s Epee: As with Men’s Foil, I believe Russia decreased its chances of a medal by placing a weaker roster. Now the top contenders in my opinion will be China, Italy, Estonia, and the USA. While I definitely want team USA win, I think that China will claim the Gold – this team looks the most promising to me.
- Individual Women’s Epee: In addition to the team players from the countries qualified for the Olympics, there are a lot of great fencers who qualified individually – Popescu (Romania), Kryvytska (Ukr), and Moellhausen (Brazil). I think the medals will be divided between Popescu, Moellhausen, Lin Shen, and one of the Italians.
- Team Women’s Foil: 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. Well, that’s the boldest prediction I’ll make here, so don’t throw stones at me if my predictions are wrong 🙂
- Individual Women’s Foil: Here I think the usual suspects will make it to the podium: Deriglazova, Volpi, Errigo, Thibus, and, hopefully (fingers crossed!), Kiefer. Each one is capable of reaching any individual title, with Deriglazova leading the pack.
- Team Women’s Sabre: 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
- Individual Women’s Sabre: Individually, I think Kharlan, any of the Russian women (with Velikaya leading the team), French fencers, and of course Zagunis (fingers crossed!), will claim the medal. I think it will be Russian-USA-Kharlan podium
Final thoughts before Tokyo 2020 in 2021
The unusual nature of this whole Olympic cycle means that it’s very difficult to predict which way anything will go. We’re ready for everything, and there will always be surprises. You just don’t know how people will process the pressure, how the stress of the pandemic will affect each person, or what to expect from the newcomers who are coming out to their first Olympics.
Making these bold predictions puts me on the spot because sport, in general, is so wonderfully unpredictable. In many aspects, the Olympic Games are even more so, especially in a sport like fencing. In spite of the risk that I’ll make a fool of myself, I had a lot of fun thinking about all this and analyzing the fencers. The major reason I decided to publish my inner thoughts isn’t to show how much I know, but to provoke a dialog and discussion. We don’t have enough of these in fencing! I’d like to open more doors to communication.
Please, share your thoughts and predictions in the comments section – there is no right or wrong opinion, not now and not even after the Games conclude. After all, it’s not us who are fencing on the Olympic stage. Our opinion matters only to us, humble fans of this gorgeous sport. It’s a lot of fun to see if our predictions come out right or wrong, and it makes the sport more interesting: anticipating, watching, and rooting!