What is Fencing?
When most Americans think of swordplay, the images that come to mind are either
of the lumbering power of armor-clad knights battling with broadswords, or of the
swashbuckling flair of Errol Flynn and other screen duelers of the ’30s and ’40s. In
what it requires and how it is conducted, Olympic fencing resembles these two
clichés about as much as the Olympic Opening Ceremonies resemble the ritual
sacrifice of animals that once signalled the start of competition.
The modern Olympic fencer trains for years, honing agility, quickness, and subtlety
of movement. The sport has been described as “chess with muscles,” suggesting
that complicated strategy lies behind the thrusts and parries that punctuate a duel.
Fencers of today employ a combination of archaic and modern customs;
combatants still salute before a match and wear the traditional white uniforms and
masks, but scoring is now determined by electronic equipment worn by the
combatants that registers when a hit takes place with color-coded lights.
As suggested by the continuing power of the myths of swordfighting knights and
adventurers, the fencing tradition is rich and storied. Like fellow Olympic sports
archery and javelin, fencing has its roots in ancient combat. Around 1200 BC, the
Egyptians began the custom of fencing for sport, as seen by images in decorative
reliefs from that period depicting knobs on the end of weapons, earflaps and other
protective garb. Sword craftsmanship evolved through the ages, from the short,
wide swords favored by the Greeks and Romans to the heavy two-handed
broadswords in vogue during the age of chivalry. After the advent of gunpowder
and firearms, armor became obsolete and lighter swords gained popularity as the
sidearm of choice for European officers and gentlemen.
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The Italians, Spanish, and French all claim parentage for modern fencing, but throughout Europe during the Renaissance the
discipline took on the aura of high art, with masters refining and passing on to a select few their secret techniques. In the 18th
century, treatises appeared in print setting forth the current system of rules and scoring, and prescribing the foil, a metal mask
with eye slit, and protective jacket or vest as equipment for use. The rules were intended to simulate real combat while
protecting the safety of the combatants. “Conventions” were subsequently adopted to limit the target area of the body and
providing for a “right of way” for attacks.
Fencing was a clear choice for inclusion in the Olympic program from 1896 onwards. At the time, the sword was still considered
an important military weapon, and sword fighting remained a well-established European custom backed by centuries of tradition.
In addition to the foil, contested weapons were the epee, descendant of the dueling sword, and the sabre, which evolved from
the weapon of choice for cavalry troops. Fencing remains one of just six sports to have appeared in every modern Olympic
In the first decades of competition, Europeans dominated, with France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands all
boasting champions. Following World War II, the communist nations of eastern Europe rose to pre-eminence, with the Soviet
Union, Poland, and Hungary sharing the medal stand. Aladar Gerevich of Hungary is considered fencing’s greatest champion,
with seven gold medals in sabre competition to his credit. In the last two Olympics the United States has begun to dominate with
gold medals and a sweep of Women’s Sabre in China
(from the 1996 U.S. Fencing Media Guide)
Foil, epee, and sabre are the three weapons used in the
sport of fencing. While it is not unusual for fencers to compete
in all three events, they generally choose to develop their
skills in one weapon. Until recently, women were permitted to
compete only in foil, but now the USFA offers national
competitions for women in epee and sabre. Women’s epee
was added to the World Championships in 1989 and will be
held for the first time at the Olympic Games in 1996. Foil and
epee are point-thrusting weapons. Sabre is a point-thrusting
as well as a cutting weapon. The target areas differ for the
three weapons, though all three are scored electronically. All
three weapons are now fenced at the Olympic level for both
The main object of a fencing bout (what an individual “match”
is called) is to effectively score 15 points (in direct elimination
play) or five points (in preliminary pool play) on your opponent before he/she scores that number on you. Each time a fencer
scores a touch, she receives a point. Direct elimination matches consist of three three-minute periods.
The epee (pronounced “EPP-pay”), the descendent of the
dueling sword, is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier,
weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a larger guard (to
protect the hand from a valid hit) and a much stiffer blade.
Touches are scored only with the point of the blade. The entire
body is the valid target area.
The epee is also an electrical weapon. The blade is wired with a
spring-loaded tip at the end that completes an electrical circuit
when it is depressed beyond a pressure of 750 grams. The
causes the colored bulb on the scoring machine to light.
Because the entire body is a valid target area, the epee fencer’s
uniform does not include a lamé. Off-target hits do not register
on the machine.
flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches in
length, weighing less than one pound. Points are
scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the
torso of the body.
The valid target area in foil is the torso, from the
shoulder to the groin, front and back. It does not
include the arms, neck, head and legs. The foil fencer’s
uniform includes a metallic vest (called a lamé) which
covers the valid target area, so that a valid touch will
register on the scoring machine. A small, spring-loaded
tip is attached to the point of the foil and is connected
to a wire inside the blade. The fencer wears a body
cord inside his uniform which connects the foil to a reel
wire, connected to the scoring machine.
There are two scoring lights on the machine. One shows a green light when a fencer is hit, and one shows a red light when her
opponent is hit. A touch landing outside the valid target area (that which is not covered by the lamé) is indicated by a white light.
These “off target” hits do not count in the scoring, but they do stop the fencing action temporarily.
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in
length and weight to the foil. The major difference is that the sabre is a point-
thrusting weapon as well as a cutting weapon (use of the blade). The target area is
from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head, simulating
the cavalry rider on a horse. The sabre fencer’s uniform includes a metallic jacket
(lamé), which covers the target area to register a valid touch on the scoring
machine. The mask is different from foil and epee, with a metallic covering since the
head is valid target area.
Just as in foil, there are two scoring lights on the machine. One shows a green light
when a fencer is hit, and one shows a red light when the opponent is hit. Off-target
hits do not register on the machine.
One of the most difficult concepts to visualize in foil and sabre fencing is the rule of
priority or “right-of-way.” This rule was established to eliminate apparently
simultaneous attacks by two fencers, and to stress the importance of defense in duels.
In essence, right-of-way is the differentiation of offense and defense, made by the referee. The difference is important only
when both the red and green lights go on at the same time in foil and sabre. When this happens, the winner of the point is the
one who the referee determined was on offense at the time the lights went on.
Epee does not use the right-of-way in keeping with its dueling origin – he who first gains the touch earns the point. Or, if both
fencers hit within 1/25th of a second of each other, both earn a point. However, it is equally important to have a sound defense
for epee, since the entire body must be protected from a touch.
Information provided in cooperation with U.S. Fencing, Colorado Springs, CO. Copyright © 1996 The National Broadcasting
Company, All Rights Reserved
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