- 16 May 2007
- IOC News
Champion at the age of 29, Champion at the age of 41
Ilona Elek, one of history’s greatest foilswomen, would have been 100 years old tomorrow. We have the occasion to honour the memory of the woman who won the Olympic gold twice, with a 12-year interval, thus proving that neither the years nor the war were able to diminish her capacities.
Both pionneer and doyenne
Berlin 1936, three years before the Second World War: electronic touch signalling machines made their first appearance in fencing tournaments. Then aged 29, Ilona Elek participated in her first Olympic Games. She excelled in the women’s individual foil event. In the final pool, she won the gold medal ahead of Germany’s Helene Mayer. A victory for Ilona, who became the first Hungarian woman to won a gold Olympic medal; and a victory against National Socialism, as Ilona was Jewish.
1939-1945, the Second World War: the Olympic Games in Tokyo (finally awarded to Helsinki) planned for 1940 and those planned in London for 1944 were cancelled.
London 1948, the Games return: this time aged 41, Ilona Elek managed to retain her title, despite the interruption caused by the War. She stepped onto the highest podium ahead of Denmark’s Karen Lachmann, and became the first woman to win two Olympic titles in the individual foil.
Helsinki 1952: although she was 45 years old, a ripe old age for an athlete, Ilona returned to the Olympic stage. She was beaten by four points to three in a play-off for the gold medal by Italy’s Irene Camber. In winning the silver medal, she became the oldest Olympic fencing medallist in history.
Foil at the Games
Present at the Olympic Games in 1896 for men, and as from 1924 for women, individual foil is largely unknown by the general public. Let’s try to get to know it better.
In Ilona’s time, matches were played in pools, and duels in five touches, with a maximum duration of three minutes. Now, matches have a direct elimination system: the players compete for 15 touches in nine minutes, divided into three periods with one minute’s rest between each one.
Each movement has a goal: the guard is the basic balancing position for attacking and defending well. The attack is the initial attacking movement, signalled by extending the sword arm and continually threatening the opponent’s upper body. It is directly followed by the feint or the fleche. The riposte is a counter attack movement after the opponent’s attack has been parried; the counter-riposte is an attack made immediately after parrying the opponent's riposte. The parry is the defensive action made with the arm to block an offensive action. All these movements require agility, speed and concentration.
Numerous women have excelled in the foil event, including Italy’s Valentina Vezzali, Olympic champion at the Sydney Games in 2000 and the Athens Games in 2004. Alongside Ilona, she has the greatest number of Olympic gold medals in women’s individual foil. We also remember Hungary’s Ildiko Rejto-Ujlaki and Italy’s Giovanna Trillini, who jointly hold the record for the number of Olympic medals won (seven) in individual or team foil.
Will Valentina Vezzali be among the fencers in Beijing next year, defending her title and her country against the formidable Russian and Hungarian athletes?
A symbolic foilswoman
Ilon Elek’s victory in the face her opponents, but also in the face of war and the passage of time, reveals the power of the spirit and the strength of the mind above and beyond the physical training needed for success. We can be inspired by her.