By Daniel Bases
LONDON (Reuters) - Italy's success on the fencing piste with a leading seven medals in the 2012 Olympic Games masks an erosion of the sport's European domination as some unlikely nations also captured sporting glory.
Never before have a Venezuelan, Norwegian or Egyptian taken home an Olympic fencing medal.
And not since 1960 has France, second to Italy in total fencing medals, left the Olympics completely empty-handed.
In London, South Korea, no longer an underdog, won the second most medals, with six, followed by China at three.
In contrast, perennial powerhouse Hungary came away with just one medal, a gold in Sabre that was marred by the playing of an out-of-sync national anthem.
Hungary sent just four fencers and not a single complete team qualified, something that has not happened in over 100 years.
"Now we have an economic crisis at the club level. Because in the clubs, there is not enough money for the accommodation, entry fees, travel, etc.," said Jeno Kamuti, chief of Hungary's fencing team and two-time silver medallist in men's foil.
Hungary's economy is seen shrinking in 2012, weighed down by high debt levels, weak banks and low investor confidence.
"There is no problem for finances on the national team, but the club system is broken," he said, describing how the traditional club sponsors the police, army and universities are struggling to fund their members.
SPREADING THE KNOW-HOW
The end of Europe's fencing domination is not so much their lack of training, but rather the lack of funding combined with an exodus of teaching talent from Eastern Bloc nations 20 years ago in search of steadier paychecks in the United States and Asia.
Wealthier emerging markets gave fencing enthusiasts a chance to seek out the best training in Europe or attract its coaches.
Moving around the world is one reason that Ruben Limardo Gascon, Venezuela's new national hero, won gold in the men's individual epee. It was Venezuela's first gold medal in 44 years, in any sport.
He thanked socialist leader Hugo Chavez for supporting his training, but not all of it is done at home. Limardo, 27, spends about 50 percent of the year in Poland.
"I must say thank you to the Polish people as well," an ecstatic Limardo said just after his victory.
Runner up to Limardo was Norwegian math teacher Bartosz Piasecki, 25. His father, Mariusz, is the national coach. He left Poland for Oslo and established a club 23 years ago.
Men's individual foil silver medalist, Alaaeldin Abouelkassem of Egypt, brought all of Africa its first fencing medal. His skills were honed by his Polish coach Pawel Kantorski.
Ukrainian, Russian and Polish fencing coaches flooded into the weak U.S. system. Ed Korfanty of Poland trains Mariel Zagunis, the two-time Olympic and two-time world champion in women's sabre. Zagunis failed to medal in London, however.
It was that coaching talent which helped bring six fencing medals home from Beijing for the U.S. team. Those high hopes were dashed in London as the young team won just one medal, a bronze for the women's epee squad.
Ironically, Poland itself didn't win any medals in London. Germany pulled in a silver and a bronze while Ukraine tallied a gold and a bronze.
Russia's disappointment with their Athens and Beijing results in sabre pushed them to hire Frenchman Christian Bauer, the super-coach who shepherded Italy's Aldo Montano to gold in Athens and did the same for China's Zhong Man in Beijing.
Russia's high expectations went unmet, garnering just two silvers and a bronze overall.
(Reporting by Daniel Bases; editing by Jason Neely)