By Brad Haynes
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Olympic fencing in Rio de Janeiro promises dramatic duels in a storied rivalry.
Russia and the United States have brought many of the hottest hands in the sport, stepping out of the shadow of traditional powerhouses such as France and Italy.
While the history of the U.S.-Russian sporting rivalry may conjure ice hockey or wrestling, their fencing teams this year are among the strongest in memory with medal threats in all six individual and four team events.
Keen to see a clash between the erstwhile Cold War foes, NBC is giving more television time to fencing at the Rio Games than any U.S. broadcaster before.
Russian fencers should avoid the fate of their track and field compatriots, who received a blanket ban from this year's Olympics due to evidence of systematic doping. The International Fencing Federation said on Wednesday that all Russian fencers who qualified for the Olympics had cleared recent doping tests.
Nowhere are the deep U.S. and Russian benches more obvious than in sabre, the fastest and most aggressive of the sport's three weapons, in which Russia boasts the world's top-ranked man and woman in Alexey Yakimenko and Sofya Velikaya.
Velikaya, who won silver in London four years ago, could face a daunting opponent in Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated U.S. fencer ever, who is chasing her third Olympic gold in Rio.
Yakimenko also knows how tough American competition can be, after losing in the round of 16 in London by one touch to U.S. rival Daryl Homer, who took silver at the world championships last year.
The two countries are also likely to face off in foil, the most balanced of the three fencing weapons, with world number one Alexander Massialas leading a stacked U.S. team against top-ranked Italy and third-ranked Russia.
Women's foil also pits third-seeded American Lee Kiefer against Russians Inna Deriglazova and Aida Shanaeva, who straddle her in the rankings.
In epee, the most cautious and defensive of the weapons, traditional European heavyweights retain the upper hand in the men's game, as France fields three of the world's best six, including top-ranked Gauthier Grumier.
In London, France failed to win a medal in fencing for the first time since 1960.
Italy's Enrico Garozzo is seeded second in men's epee and team mate Rossella Fiamingo is ranked fourth among the women.
The best Italian shot at gold, though, may be Arianna Errigo, who is ranked number one in women's foil and took individual silver and team gold at the 2012 Olympics.
The fencing competition takes place from Aug. 6-14 at the Carioca Arena 3.
(Reporting by Brad Haynes,; Editing by Neville Dalton)