Almost 30 years ago, the tight-knit sport of fencing suffered a tragic accident with the horrific death of world and Olympic champion Vladimir Smirnov. While the Soviet fencer’s death at the Rome World championships in 1982 shocked the sport to its core, the fatal accident proved to be a turning point in making fencing safer.
Smirnov was fencing West Germany’s Matthias Behr. Both stood over six-feet tall and attacked each other simultaneously in an attempt to establish an advantage. Smirnov’s former coach Alexander Perekalsky, 87, recalls, “Smirnov tried to block Behr’s blade with an upward parry, that Behr avoided. Both collided and Behr’s blade broke on Smirnov’s chest and by inertia he continued forward. The broken blade hits a brand new mask and goes through, hitting him above the left eye and into his brain.”Smirnov died some 10 days later after being taken off life support.
Ioan Pop, the international technical director for fencing’s governing body (FIE), said the current standard of safety in the sport owed much to the accident 30 years ago. “It was absolutely the accident,” said Romanian Pop. Pop is responsible for making sure fencing at the London Olympics is both safe as well as enjoyable to watch.
While safety is paramount, the real challenge is to ensure spectators can see the action, no easy task given the tip of a fencing blade is believed to be the second-fastest moving object at the Olympics after shooter’s bullet.
Massive floor lights wrapping around the fencing area will flash when the wireless electronic scoring equipment is set off by a touch either on or off the valid target. Slow-motion instant replay for judges are new for the Olympics this year and make decisions more transparent.
In an era of ballistic-grade fabric for uniforms, stronger steel, more rigid masks that stand up to 12kg punch tests, the banning of the running attack in saber, safety has improved and injuries severe enough to knock a competitor out of competition remain low.