The sabre – the only weapon to have been at every Games since 1896
Fencing was one of the nine sports on the Olympic programme at the first Games of the modern era in Athens in 1896, with one foil event and one sabre event. The sabre is the only weapon to have been at every edition of the Games, all the way up to Rio 2016. It was, however, the last fencing category to have been opened up to women, in 2004 in Athens.
What do Greece’s Ioannis Georgiadis and Hungary’s Áron Szilágyi have in common? Both of them are sabre fencers, albeit with 120 years between them. And both of them were Olympic champions in this discipline; one in Athens in 1896, and one in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. Szilágyi won his second title as Russia’s Yana Egorian claimed gold in the women’s event at the fencing arena.
The sabre is the only fencing category to have been at every edition of the Games without exception, and it is on the programme for the next Games in Tokyo in 2020. This weapon differs from the foil and the epée in that you can hit your rival with something other than the tip of the blade. It is considered a weapon of “cut, thrust and counter-thrust”. Hits can be scored with the edge, the flat or the back of the blade. The target area includes the entire upper part of the body, the torso, the arms and the head. The sabre was the last weapon to adopt electrical equipment that registers hits by setting off lights. This transition was made in 1988, a considerable while after the foil and the epée.
The sabre event has featured 28 times on the Olympic stage (with its 29th appearance due in Tokyo in 2020), just ahead of the epée and foil, both of which have featured 27 times. The sabre is also the fencing team event with the most Olympic appearances to its name, having featured 24 times since the London Games in 1908. One of the great sabre moments at the Olympic Games was in 1920 in Antwerp, when Italy’s Nedo Nadi achieved the unique feat of winning five gold medals across all the weapons events! But it was in the sabre that he showed the full extent of his talent, with 11 victories and no losses in the final round of the individual tournament, in which he beat his brother Aldo to take gold! The Nadi brothers won the team event together without losing once (claiming seven victories). Another great moment came in Athens in 2004, during a particularly fiercely contested final between France and Italy. Damien Touya, who had injured his hand in the semi-final, made it onto the piste and got the final, winning hits. The French team – made up of Touya, his brother Gaël and Julien Pillet – ended up winning 45-42.
The legendary Hungarian sabre fencers
In the individual competition, only five champions have won the gold medal more than once: Hungary’s Jenő Fuchs in 1908 and 1912; his compatriot Rudolf Kárpáti in 1956 and 1960; the USSR’s Viktor Krovopuskov in 1976 and 1980; France’s Jean-François Lamour in 1984 and 1988; and Áron Szilágyi in 2012 and 2016. Hungarian Aladár Gerevich, winner of the individual event in 1948 in London, is the most decorated sabre fencer of all time, with 10 medals in total, including seven golds won in team events between 1932 and 1960. Generally speaking, Hungary is the king of the sabre competition at the Games; Hungarian sabre maestros won 11 gold medals out of a possible 12 in the discipline between 1908 and 1968! And the tradition is still going strong to this day, as Szilágyi, the two-time winner and reigning champion, is the pupil of fencing instructor Gyorgi Gerevich, the son of Aladár Gerevich.
Mariel Zagunis – the first female champion
In the women’s competition, the story is somewhat different. Although female fencers began competing at the Games in Paris in 1924 in the foil event, and women’s epée made its first appearance in Atlanta in 1996, it was not until the Athens Games in 2004 that sabre had its first female Olympic champion: the USA’s Mariel Zagunis, aged 19 at the time. With this victory, she became the first-ever American fencer to win gold, after 100 years of trying! Zagunis did not stop there; she retained her title in Beijing in 2008, and won two bronze medals in the team event in the only two team competitions in the discipline that have been held to this day – in Beijing and in Rio in 2016, won by Ukraine and Russia respectively.