Bhavani Devi: History-maker at World Fencing Championships boosts hopes for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Debkalpa Banerjee
Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararaman Bhavani Devi, also known as Bhavani Devi, can become the first Indian Olympic fencer next year. (Source: Twitter/@IamBhavaniDevi)

C A Bhavani Devi made history on Sunday when she became the first Indian fencer to reach the last 16 of the ongoing World Fencing Championships. Although she succumbed to a defeat at the hands of Romania’s Bianca Pascu (in Inpidual Women s Sabre event) at the SYMA Sports and Conference Centre in Budapest, Devi’s performance keeps her in firm contention for a slot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Losing narrowly by just one point (14-15), the 25-year-old made her mark in the fencing circuit by jumping 23 places in rankings after the completion of the event. She currently holds the 44th spot, which boosts her chances of qualifications for the Olympics.

Earning the distinction of being the first Indian to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Fencing Championship held in Canberra, Australia last November, Devi has carried on with the momentum.

At the 2019 World Fencing Championships, which began on July 15, Devi began her campaign against Tunisia’s Azza Besbes (ranked 61) in the Round of 64. The Chennai-born fencer won the contest by a margin of 15-10, despite starting off slowly.

In the next round, where she was up against Canada’s Gabriella Page (ranked 36), the underdog pulled off a blinder. Bhavani kept pace with the Canadian’s advances from the beginning itself, before falling to a dire 11-14. But, she made history by overturning Page’s three match points to become the first Indian to reach the pre-quarters of a World Championship soon after. With four consecutive touches right in the face of defeat, she eventually won the match 15-14.

How Bhavani Devi became the only Indian in international fencing circuit

Bhavani hopped into the pre-quarters, hoping to make it into the last eight, but her run was brought to a grinding halt by Pascu (ranked 19) as she lost the contest. The Indian fencer fell way behind by 5-13, before making a comeback to level it at 14-14, bringing the match right down to the wire.

Pascu didn’t falter thereafter and grabbed the match point, and as it turned out, went on to win the bronze along with Greece’s Theodora Gkountoura. Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan won the gold medal after defeating Russia’s Sofya Velikaya on Sunday itself.

What is fencing?

Competitive fencing consists of three primary disciplines, namely p e, foil, and sabre. All the events mandate that the fencer has to touch the opponent with their weapon in order to score a point. In p e and foil, the touches have to be made with the tip of the sword, where the entire body is the valid target for p e, while only the torso is the valid target for foil.

For sabre, Bhavani’s weapon of choice, the scoring touches can be made with any part of the sword. The sabre is a shorter, lighter thrusting weapon that targets anywhere above the hips, excluding the hands, i.e; head, neck, arms, and torso. It also has a concept of "right of way", where if both the fencers touch each other almost simultaneously, the one initiating the attack is awarded the point.

Fencers have to wear protective clothing, including a jacket, plastron, gloves, breeches, masks, and also a lam , which is a layer of the electrically conductive material used for the ease of scoring.

What about qualifying for Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

Starting off on July 24 next year, Tokyo 2020 will have competitive medals in all the three disciplines. In the inpidual sabre event, each match will consist of three 3-minute rounds with a rest period in between them, where the objective is to score 15 touches as soon as possible. In case of a tie at the end of the three rounds, there is a 1-minute sudden-death period.

The qualification for the Tokyo Olympics next year is primarily done based on world rankings, both team and inpidual on April 4, 2020. After eight teams qualify based on their rankings, the fencers in the team event will also compete for the inpidual event along with 10 other inpidual fencers from countries that do not have a team.

Of these 10 inpiduals, two will be the highest-ranked eligible fencers in Europe, two from Asia-Oceania, one from Africa and one from Pan-America. For the rest of the four spots, there will be continental qualification tournaments in April 2020, where Bhavani can punch her ticket to Tokyo in her Women’s Inpidual Sabre event. Owing to her massive jump in rankings, from 67 to 44, her chances of qualifying for the Olympics as the first-ever Indian fencer through the Asian qualifiers have increased by leaps and bounds.

Apart from her success at the 2019 World Fencing Championship and the gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Fencing Championship, Bhavani Devi has also received two gold medals, one each at the 2012 Commonwealth Championship, and the 2014 Tuscany Cup. Evidently, knowing or unknowingly, she is slowly putting India on the world fencing map.