Hong Kong Olympic fencer Cheung Ka-long learns valuable lesson: never fight a Brazilian in front of rabid Rio fans

The Asian champion lost to Brazil’s Guilherme Toldo in the last 16 of the men’s foil after his opponent rode a wave of euphoria to claim victory

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 4:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 10:57pm

Not a fencing expert. Having gone into the judo arena next door, I realised I had made a mistake after watching three or four fights that seemed to involve little to no swordplay, which I was nearly certain was an important aspect of the sport.

Yes, these Olympics are a learning experience for many of us. At just 19, it was always going to be so for Cheung Ka-long and the main lesson from Sunday’s action in Rio de Janeiro seemed to be ‘never fight a Brazilian in front of his home fans’.

At any other competition, in any other location, Cheung’s opponent in the last 16 of the men’s foil would surely have been overcome.

Guilherme Toldo is the world number 66, while Cheung is world number 20. Toldo was ranked 33 out of 34 in the draw, and had played an extra match to get to the last 16, while Cheung had a first round bye.

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The local fans took it upon themselves to drown out all those suppositions, with support was that not so much passionate as near violently opposed to anyone and anything not in possession of a Brazilian passport.

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Again, in my ignorance, I had expected the atmosphere at fencing to be rather sedate, the applause patronisingly polite and the crowd demographic chateaux-owning Hussars. (At this point, it should be noted that most of my conceptions about the sport come from film and literature about Napoleonic War-era duellists).

Perhaps that is the case at other events, but not in Rio, where hordes of yellow-shirted, flag-waving, chanting, booing and whistling folk materialised every time a fighter with the word BRA after his name was in action. Where they went in between times was a mystery, though I suspect it was next door to scream at foreign judokas.

Given the spate of scare stories about the construction of Olympic venues, when the Arena literally started shaking during the Cheung-Toldo match, you feared the worst.

“Never, ever, ever,” said the diminutive mile-a-minute talker Toldo when I asked if he’d ever experienced a similar atmosphere at other events. “It’s intense, something tribal.”

Toldo surfed this wave all the way to the quarter-final, where Italian Daniele Garozzo finally imposed silence – and a minor exodus – on Carioca 3. Garozzo went on to win gold, clearly hardened by his experience in front of the locals.

“It was so hard to concentrate,” admitted Cheung after his 15-10 defeat in the last 16. He initially seemed to have little problem, taking the yellow-and-green volume down as he took an 8-4 lead.

But Toldo reeled off a few touches in succession, which produced in the crowd an effect similar to waving a raw porterhouse in front of a lion which hadn’t eaten for a week and had fallen behind on the anger management classes.

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“BRASIL [clap-clap-clap], BRASIL [stomp-stomp-stomp]” was as non-partisan as it got from there, the polite request from the PA to “respect both opponents” not just ignored but treated with active, amusing, contempt by a crowd seemingly transported from a major football final at the Maracana stadium.

From 8-4, Toldo won eight of the next nine points and was on his way to the quarters, though even he appeared to be getting a little frustrated as the match repeatedly had to be stopped since the referee and players simply couldn’t hear each other.

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“It was so loud,” said Cheung. He had been set to face Yuki Ota, the world champion from Japan and top seed, before the crowd decided otherwise and launched Toldo to a stunning upset in the Brazilian’s previous match. Having beaten Ota on his way to victory in the Asian Championships this year, that tie might have been preferable for Cheung. It would at least have been peaceful.

“I think my friend who fenced with me had some problems with the noise, but that’s what makes the Olympics special,” said Toldo.

Brazilian fencer rides raucous wave of home support to knock out Hong Kong’s Cheung Ka-long in last-16

“I came here yesterday to support my friends and I tried to feel the sensation of the crowd, to try to understand what was going on. Some people don’t get a good feeling [from it] but I transform it to help me in the match.”

So what did Cheung, tinnitus ringing in his ears, learn that will stand him in good stead in 2020?

“I know the pressure, how big it can get,” he said.

“Maybe next Olympics I’ll do better – and if I face a Japanese fencer in Tokyo, I’ll know what to do!”