TOKYO — Eli Dershwitz was seeded for silver in the saber but it could have been gold. Or it could have been a first-round exit. Olympic fencing always is something of a roulette spin and never so much as it is this time after a year’s postponement and a World Cup season that wasn’t. What did rankings mean when there were so few results upon which to rank anyone?
The last world championships were in 2019. There was one Cup event this year in Budapest in mid-March as the sport came out of its COVID coma. But the international federation needed rankings to create a draw for the Games, which is how Dershwitz, the Sherborn, Mass., native and Harvard grad, found himself facing a former world titlist and two-time Olympic medalist in his second match.
South Korea’s Kim Jung-hwan was the man who beat Dershwitz in the global final in China three years ago, retired later that season, and then changed his mind. “I thought that I accomplished everything as a fencer,” he said. “However, I was then haunted by feelings of emptiness.”
So Kim came back as a scary spectre in the 36-man field, a 15th-seeded contender in the bottom quadrant just waiting to upend someone. That someone was Dershwitz, who’d dispatched Japan’s Kaito Streets in his first match while Kim was taking care of ROC’s (as in Russia’s) Konstantin Lokhanov.
Dershwitz’s intensive training had prepared him for whatever unsettling apparition he might encounter on the piste. The point was to put mind and body through hell in practice, to push himself through “pain, adversity, and stress” so that he could handle whatever might be in his way at the Games.
Dershwitz fought Kim on even terms for most of their 10-minute encounter. Then the Korean ran off five points in a row to go up, 14-8, conceded one more point, then finished off Dershwitz. No loser’s bracket, no repechage, no second shot.
So it went, too, for South Korea’s Oh Sang-uk, the reigning world champion who put out Andrew Mackiewicz of Westwood, Mass., but went out himself in the quarters. Daryl Homer, the American who’d made history by winning the silver medal in Rio in 2016, lost his first match to an Egyptian.
The Olympics are the most dramatic and cruelest proving ground in sports because they take the efforts of a full quadrennium, if not a lifetime, and pass judgment on one day. That’s literally true in disciplines such as fencing, judo, taekwondo, and weightlifting where the entire competition is conducted on the same day. Wake up with a stomach virus, twist an ankle stepping off a bus, have a careless moment or two against a clever rival, and you can leave the Games emptyhanded.
That’s why athletes in those sports were so worried about the coronavirus. A soccer player who’s sent into quarantine after the first round still will get a gold medal if her teammates win the final without her. A boxer who has advanced to the semifinals will collect the bronze medal that he earned by getting that far. Not so the fencer. A positive test here — and we’ve seen them virtually every day since athletes began arriving in the village — and you miss your moment.
At least fencers have a shot at a team medal if they fall short in the individual competition. Dershwitz, who preferred not to talk after his match, will get that chance on Wednesday along with Homer and Mackiewicz. The odds are decidedly longer for that one — the Americans are ranked eighth — but at least it’s an opportunity to have another spin of the five-ringed roulette wheel.
Kim, who picked up his second straight bronze here after losing to Italy’s Luigi Samele in the semis, has an excellent prospect for a second gold with Korea’s powerhouse squad. He got one in London in 2012, but the team event was dropped for Rio. Now, at 37, Kim can banish the feelings of emptiness before he retires for good.
The unrivaled master of seizing the day at Olympus, though, is Hungary’s Aron Szilagyi, who won his third consecutive gold medal by slashing Samele by a 15-7 count. No man ever had done that in saber, but what’s remarkable is that the 31-year-old Szilagyi not only never has won a world title, he hasn’t won a medal in eight years. Dershwitz beat him in the 2018 quarters en route to his silver.
Yet Szilagyi knows how to grab the golden ring that comes around only once every four years. This time, of course, it was five. COVID disrupted the quadrennial rhythms and played havoc with preparation. This seemed to be a Games when anyone could have his day.
But the man who did was the man who has perfected the art of thriving in the moment on three continents. And this time, because of the safety-first ceremonial protocols, Szilagyi got to put the medal around his own neck. “I need a couple of weeks, maybe months,” he reckoned, “to believe what just occurred.”