Team USA suffers pair of tough losses

Updated: August 19, 2004, 4:24 PM ET

ATHENS, Greece -- Twice Keeth Smart charged, his opponent attacked and both lights went off. Twice, Smart was left standing on the strip, helmet in hand, after U.S. losses.

The American men's saber fencing team lost on the final touch two times Thursday, losing dramatic matches against France in the semifinals and then Russia.

While the French went on to beat Italy to win the gold, Smart and the U.S. team -- stung by the deciding call in the semifinal -- regrouped for the bronze-medal match, only to lose again to the Russians, 45-44.

"This one really hurt," said Smart, who was in tears after losing out the medal. "It wasn't meant to be for whatever reason."

Tied at 44, Keeth Smart tried to attack, but four-time gold medalist Stanislav Pozdniakov got the touch first to win the match.

Smart had entered the final rotation against Russia with a 40-35 lead, meaning that he needed to score five touches off his opponent before Pozdniakov could score 10 off him. Pozdniakov scored five of the first six points to tie it, and when Smart went ahead 43-41, the Russian ran off three straight to take the lead.

On the brink, Smart avoided Pozdniakov's attack and scored to tie the bout at 44, setting the stage for the deciding point. After neither scored on a double-touch, Smart attacked but hesitated for split-second, which gave Pozdniakov an opening.

"The one thing I did was pull back my arm," said Smart, who last year became the first U.S. fencer to be ranked No. 1. "As a saber fencer, when you pull back your arm, you're automatically going to be punished."

After Pozdniakov scored, Smart took off his helmet and gave a dejected look upwards. As he walked off, he was consoled by his teammates.

"I can go to sleep tonight because I know I lost on my best action," Smart said.

The loss to France, however, was a bitter pill to swallow.

After upsetting Hungary, the Americans trailed France 40-38 in the semifinals when Smart came in to fence Damien Touya. Smart rallied to tie it at 44. On the next play, no point was scored, but Smart's saber went through Touya's glove, piercing his hand at the webbing of the fingers, and exiting through his palm. The match stopped so Touya could receive treatment, while France's replacement athlete, Boris Sanson, started to warm up.

With the 10-minute injury timeout set to end, Touya chose to return to the match with his injured and bandaged hand instead of being replaced.

"He was especially courageous since we were tied at 44-44," said Philippe Omnes, the technical director of the French fencing federation.

The two fencers attacked two more times but no points were awarded. On each play, referee Jose Luis Alvarez of Spain determined that the fencers attacked simultaneously.

On the fourth attempt at a deciding point, Smart and Touya both recorded touches, but Alvarez ruled that Touya caught Smart while preparing to attack, giving the Frenchman the victory.

"France ... you know ... man, that hurt," Smart said. "Everyone was there, everyone saw it. For whatever reason the officials didn't want to help us out."

Smart stood in the middle of the strip, his helmet off and mouth agape, after the referee awarded the final point to Touya, who had bloodstains on the leg of his white suit.

"The last touch with France, I think it was a bad call," said Smart's teammate, Ivan Lee.

In the hours between bouts the U.S. team of Smart and Lee, both from New York, and Jason Rogers of Los Angeles, regrouped. Against Russia, they turned an early five-point deficit into a five point lead, before Pozdniakov rallied for the win.

"I went into it knowing Stas is a legend in fencing," said Rogers, who lost 7-1 to Pozdniakov in his bout.

"Sometimes the guy just outfences you."