August 18, 2008 / 9:01 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. joins fencing powers Italy, France at top

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States joined Italy and France at the top of the fencing medals table at the Beijing Olympics, finally challenging the traditional powers of the sport after decades of obscurity.

(L-R) Keeth Smart, Jason rogers, Tim Morehouse and James Williams of the U.S. pose with their silver medals after the men's team sabre fencing competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 17, 2008. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The Americans had waited 100 years for a fencing gold when Mariel Zagunis won the individual saber at the Athens Games. She not only repeated that performance in Beijing, but her teammates Sada Jacobson and Rebecca Ward won silver and bronze as well as bronze in the team event.

With the women’s foil and men’s saber teams also winning silver, the U.S. left Beijing with six fencing medals, more than at any other Games.

“I started fencing because I saw Peter Westbrook win a medal (saber bronze at the 1984 Games) and I wanted one for myself,” said Keeth Smart, who led the U.S. men to saber silver. “Now maybe kids will see us and want their own medals as well.”

American fencers have benefited from an influx of coaches from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain and are likely to remain a force to be reckoned with.

“We are in good shape,” U.S. Olympic coach Ed Korfanty said. “I don’t think this is the end of the U.S. saber teams.”

In women’s foil, Italian Valentina Vezzali continued to dominate the field and won a record third consecutive gold in the individual event.

Including team events, she now has five Olympic golds, one silver and one bronze and shows no signs of stopping at age 34.

“I could never lose my motivation, there are always new records to reach,” she said before the Games. “I don’t think I’m going to give up. I just want to reach London 2012.”

Vezzali led an Italian team that also won the individual epee gold through Matteo Tagliariol as well as five bronze medals, overcoming the distraction of top-ranked foil fencer Andrea Baldini’s positive doping test just before the Olympics.

France retained its men’s team saber and epee titles from Athens, also winning silver in the men’s individual events for those weapons. It remains the country with the most fencing medals in Olympic history with 115, one more than Italy.

China ended a 24-year fencing gold medal drought when Zhong Man won the men’s saber, but could only manage one other medal, a silver in women’s team saber.

The introduction of video replay in a sport that used to be plagued by referee controversies was a success at the Games.

“People need to have confidence in our sport and also understand what’s going on,” said Rene Roch, the president of the International Fencing Federation.

The transparent mask, first introduced in Athens for saber, was expanded to foil as fencing tried to broaden its appeal and become more television-friendly.

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