By Dylan Markov
Fencing claims two of only four sports that have been contested in every Olympics since 1896. The men’s foil and saber competitions were on the program that first year (though epee, a third event, was added later). But, while the sport of fencing made an early Olympic debut, Pavel Kolobkov took up the sport relatively late — at least by Soviet standards. At the insistence of his parents, he had started out as a figure skater and a swimmer, later switching over to ski jumping "because it was cool." It was only at the age of 10 that he took up fencing. Kolobkov excelled at the sport early on, and was selected to the Soviet team as a teenager, participating in his first Olympics as an 18-year-old at the 1988 games in Seoul. He got a taste of victory that year when his team took the bronze medal in the epee event, but his great dream was to become an Olympic cham- pion in his own right.
Kolobkov came closer to realizing that dream when he picked up an individual silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona games. He took home another bronze in the team event that year, but the indi- vidual gold continued to elude him.
On many levels, fencing is a sport of chance, where almost anyone can win on any given day, and though Kolobkov went into the individual event at the 1996 games as a favorite — he had won world titles in 1993 and 1994, and was the reigning European champion — he left Atlanta empty-handed. He did manage a silver in the team event that year, but his dream of individual gold remained just that: a dream. "I really wanted it badly," he remembers. "I put a great deal into training for the ’96 Games — perhaps too much. I just felt bad that day and I lost."
On returning to Moscow from Atlanta, Kolobkov set out immediately on a personal quest to win gold in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. He became so obsessed that his teammates began referring to him as "the Fanatic." But his dedication was rewarded with a World Cup title in 1999, and another European Championship in 2000. Going into the Sydney Games, Kolobkov was in peak form, but the field of contenders was so strong that year that he actually found himself going in as an underdog. Adding to the challenge was the disappointing fact that his teammates had not been able to make the trip to Sydney with him.
Kolobkov battled his way through the early rounds, setting up a clash with Ivan Trevejo, an exceptionally talented Cuban fencer, in the quarterfinals. The veteran Russian was yielding throughout, but managed to fight back at the end of the bout to score an upset against the fiery Cuban. In the finals, he met the former World Champion, Hugues Obry of France. But Kolobkov would not be denied fencing’s ultimate prize, and he deftly disposed of the Frenchman, finally claiming his first career individual gold medal. "After such a victory you are overwhelmed with emotions," he said later. But he also confessed that he had consulted a card reader before the games who had predicted the victory. So convinced was Kolobkov that he would win that he reserved the best table at a Sydney restaurant well in advance in order to celebrate his victory with family and friends.
Today, Pavel Kolobkov is the director of two World Class fitness clubs in Moscow, but he still trains with the national team. At 34, with four Olympics under his belt, he is very much the elder on a team of athletes who are otherwise much younger. But he is still Russia’s top fencer, and he continues to dedicate himself to the sport. In 2002, at the age of 32, he won yet another World title, setting up his gold medal defense at the Olympics in August. "Realistically," he admits, "there are 15 fencers who are contenders for the gold in Athens." So could the wily veteran repeat his feat, and walk away once more with fencing’s top prize? Perhaps, at 34, the odds are not in his favor. But knowing Pavel Kolobkov, he’ll definitely take a stab at it.