The wonderful thing about the Olympic Games is that every session of every day throws up a new hero to exalt. Some will be multiple champions, sporting greats or gallant losers. Some, on the other hand, simply charm the pants off you.
by Jonathan Liew
Everybody has their own moment of reverence at the Games, and mine came yesterday, courtesy of the Venezuelan épée fencer Ruben Limardo. I had never heard of Limardo.
Nor had the crowd, save for two dozen Venezuelan fans, cheering wildly for their man. He was no rank outsider, but nor was he expected to win a medal. Certainly not with Max Heinzer, the Swiss world No 2, lying in wait in the last 16.
The pair posed a stark contrast. Heinzer was technically flawless and tactically astute, waiting for his opponent to make the first move.
This is the surest way to win épée, which unlike sabre and foil, permits a point to be scored against any part of the body rather than just the torso.
Attempting an attack leaves you dangerously open to a counter-blow. Defence, therefore, is the key. Feinting a thrust to provoke a riposte is a frequent motif. It is what makes épée the most tactical and psychological of all the fencing disciplines.
Naturally, Heinzer knew all this. It would be unfair to say I took an instant dislike to him, but the way he fist-pumped after scoring a point had a distinct whiff of Federer-esque arrogance about it.
Twice, as Limardo lunged at him, he wriggled out of the way and then jabbed his opponent in the back.
This, though a legitimate tactic, seemed dishonourable. Later, I discovered that when you visit his personal website, it attempts to charge you for access. Ladies and gentlemen, we had a villain.
Limardo, just 5ft 9in and giving away a significant reach advantage, had one strategy only: attack.
While the other fighters in the Excel Arena — all matches up to and including the quarter-final stage are played four at a time — tiptoed cautiously up and down the piste, keeping the sword watchfully upright, Limardo leapt and lunged, rattling the épée, swishing it around, scanning Heinzer’s every twitch for a sign of what he was planning.
“It’s a sport of thinking,” says Asimina Tsellou, communications manager of the FIE governing body, whose job it is to sell the sport.
“You need to have a strategy. It’s not to do only with yourself. It’s not about training for four years and doing your best. No, here you have to understand the enemy. The hits. The strategy. You have to be in an enemy’s mind and understand his movement.”
The cerebral dimension of fencing cannot be overstated. What other sport awards “diplomas” to its champions and bestows the title of “professor” on its qualified coaches, as the British Academy of Fencing does?
Many former fencers go on to successful careers in business or academia.
Britain’s Corinna Lawrence, who lost in the women’s épée on Monday, is studying for a business degree at the Universityof Westminster.
Another British fencer, Sophie Williams, 21, is a product of Millfield School who took up the sport when she was 10. “I had a nine-year-old brother and I wanted to beat himin a sword fight,” she says.
“Luckily I’ve had a family who were supportive and drove me all overthe country.”
The criticism levelled at fencing is that it is elitist, unreachable to most due to the prohibitive cost of equipment and electronic scoring systems.
Williams admits that her parents gave her “a huge amount” of financial support, but adds: “No sport is cheap when you get to a certain level, when you’re flying all over the world. But there are great foundations now.”
Along with fellow Briton, Louise Bond-Williams, Williams lost in the first round of the women’s sabre, capping what has been a miserable Games on the piste for Britain.
Back in the stands, meanwhile, the Venezuelan fans were noisily celebrating Limardo’s 15-11 over Heinzer, joining his countryman Silvio Fernandez in the last eight.
You may have spotted where we are heading with this. How can Venezuela, with half the population and a third of the average incomeof Britain, produce two moreworld-class fencers than us?
Williams does not have an answer, but she does see progress. “It’s not an overnight process,” she says. “But we’ve made such improvements in the last year. Hopefully that will deliver medals in Rio.”
Limardo, meanwhile, is threatening to deliver a medal in London. At the start of the final round of his quarter-final against world champion Paolo Pizzo, of Italy, the score is locked at 12-12, first to 15 points. Pizzo takes a couple of steps back, Limardo a couple of steps forward.
He rattles the sword a little. Pizzo wavers for a millisecond: all the time Limardo needs to lunge forward and thrust his épée into Pizzo’s torso.
Victory follows seconds later. Limardo celebrates by sprinting dementedly around the arena, before dropping to his knees in front of the Venezuelan fans.
I have to leave for the Aquatic Centre before Limardo fights for the gold medal against Bartosz Piasecki. But during a short gap between swimming semi-finals, I manage to coax enough signal out of my phone to watch a live stream.
Limardo is magnificent. Giving away eight inches to his Norwegian opponent, he attacks with devastating speed and breathtaking agility. At 14-6, he wavers, losing four points in a row. Piasecki scents a sensational comeback. But Limardo wins the next, winning Venezuela’s first gold medal for 44 years.
As whoops ring out for Michael Jamieson and Ryan Lochte, I indulge in a small cheer of my own, celebrating this most unlikely of Olympic fairytales.