Sabers rattle as Russo-American rivalry hits piste

Fri Jul 29, 2016 1:14am EDT
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By Brad Haynes

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Olympic fencing in Rio de Janeiro promises dramatic duels in a storied rivalry. 

Russia and the United States have brought many of the hottest hands in the sport, stepping out of the shadow of traditional powerhouses such as France and Italy.

While the history of the U.S.-Russian sporting rivalry may conjure ice hockey or wrestling, their fencing teams this year are among the strongest in memory with medal threats in all six individual and four team events.

Keen to see a clash between the erstwhile Cold War foes, NBC is giving more television time to fencing at the Rio Games than any U.S. broadcaster before.

Russian fencers should avoid the fate of their track and field compatriots, who received a blanket ban from this year's Olympics due to evidence of systematic doping. The International Fencing Federation said on Wednesday that all Russian fencers who qualified for the Olympics had cleared recent doping tests.

Nowhere are the deep U.S. and Russian benches more obvious than in sabre, the fastest and most aggressive of the sport's three weapons, in which Russia boasts the world's top-ranked man and woman in Alexey Yakimenko and Sofya Velikaya.

Velikaya, who won silver in London four years ago, could face a daunting opponent in Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated U.S. fencer ever, who is chasing her third Olympic gold in Rio.

Yakimenko also knows how tough American competition can be, after losing in the round of 16 in London by one touch to U.S. rival Daryl Homer, who took silver at the world championships last year.   Continued...

Russia's Alexey Yakimenko (L) competes against Daryl Homer of the U.S. during their men's sabre final at the World Fencing Championships in Moscow July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor