Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

In the sabre, you live and die by the sword.

Zagunis: rattling many a sabre in Athens
Zagunis: rattling many a sabre in Athens

The Olympics would obviously be better if every athlete carried a sword. If competitors had sharpened blades, equestrian would at least be watchable and gymnastics would require a lot more strategy. The sabre, of course, is perfect already. The other fencing disciplines, the epee and foil, are fun but ultimately a little mincing. Sabre, the only subset of the sport where you can slash rather than just thrust limply, is pure swashbuckling, the Errol Flynn of sports.

Swordplay makes for the fastest action in the Olympiad. Most points come down to whether or not the slasher brings his instrument down before his opponent sneaks in a counterstrike. True to the sabre’s macho nature, ties go to the aggressor. When there is no clear-cut attacker, the umpire has to parse touches separated by split seconds and hidden by splaying arms. The sport’s capriciousness is a great part of its appeal. The art of acting victorious can be just as important as good hand-eye coordination. After nearly every point, both fencers go through a hilarious pas de deux—mad celebration, followed by plaintive looks toward the umpire. When they stop screaming bloody murder, one fencer goes trotting happily back to his end of the piste while the other stares incomprehensibly into space, astonished that a blind man would be assigned to referee in the Olympics.

Sabre gets about as much media attention in this country as elephant polo, but we do have some world-class sabreists.American sisters Sada and Emily Jacobson (from the fencing city of Dunwoody, Ga.) and 19-year-old Mariel Zagunis are all highly ranked and trailblazers to boot. Until this year, sabre clung to the hopelessly outdated code that the whole swordfighting thing was too soaked in testosterone for the ladies. Fortunately, Athens marks the debut of women’s sabre, so the United States could see some medals. (Tune in to Bravo between 5-8 p.m. ET today to find out.)

The top-ranked male American sabreist, Keeth Smart, is clearly in his element in a sport where, like laser tag, your head lights up red when you get hit.Smart, who was ranked No. 1 in the world last year, looks like he took up fencing as a natural progression from those plastic light-sabre battles down at DragonCon. Unfortunately, he met eventual finalist Aldo Montano in the round of 16 and was beat soundly.

In the men’s gold-medal bout, the dashing, ultra-aggressive Italian  Montano (a male model, yet!) clashed with the placid, technical Zsolt Nemcsik of Hungary. The match came down to the ultimate dramatic moment—tied at 14, next touch wins. Four years of training and a day of slicing and dicing down to a solitary touch of the sword tip. True to the sport’s inscrutable nature, the winner could scarcely be determined by the naked eye. Incredibly, the CNBC coverage didn’t bother to show the replay of the deciding point, leaving the deserving victor unknown. Montano, though, ran around like a madman, convinced of victory. After a performance like that, the umpire couldn’t help but give Italy the gold.