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Fencing Events in the Summer Olympics

Although it might not be quite as exciting as the to-the-death duels you see in swashbuckling movies, Olympic fencing is quite an intense and dramatic sport in its own right. The basic goal of fencing is to score the most hits (or touches) on your opponent with your weapon.

A single competition, or bout, is conducted in three 3-minute sessions. The first person to score 15 hits (or the person who has the most hits at the end of the bout, whichever comes first) wins.

“Touché!” is a phrase people sometimes use to mean, “You make an excellent point; I’ll give you credit for that.” This common exclamation comes from the sport of fencing. Literally, it means “touched” in French — as in “Touched by the other fencer. Point scored!”

The roots of Olympic fencing are based, of course, in real-life military combat with swords and knives, the weapons of the day. While modern warfare has mostly moved beyond hand-held weapons, the popularity of fencing as a sport endures. In fact, fencing is one of only four sports to be a part of every modern Olympic Games since they debuted in Athens, Greece, in 1896.

Modern Olympic fencing competition is a cross-breed of techniques developed all over the world but mostly from Spain, Italy, and France. The sport landed on French for its terminology when a French fencer named Henri de Saint-Didier published an instructional book about fencing, and the descriptive (French) terms he used stuck.

Olympic fencing weapons and scoring

Hits are recorded electronically and verified by referees. What counts as a hit or touch depends on the kind of weapon you’re using — each weapon targets a different area of the body, and only certain parts of each weapon can be used to score a touch. While they might seem similar, the strategies and the scoring are quite different. There are three types of fencing weapons:

  • The foil is the lightest fencing weapon, primarily used to thrust at the target. The target for a foil is the torso (front and back). Only a touch in the target area with the tip of the foil scores a point — you cannot score by touching with the side of the blade. If a touch is made, the clock stops and the fencers reset, even if the touch was not counted. If two fencers touch each other at the same time, a point is only awarded to the fencer who was on the attack.

  • The sabre is the modern-day cavalry sword. It is heavier than the foil, and you can score points by touching the opponent with either the tip or the side edges of the weapon. A sabre hit only counts if it is above the waist. The referee determines who scores in the event of simultaneous hits. The clock does not stop when an off-target touch is made.

  • The epée is the heaviest of the three fencing weapons. Like the foil, a touch only counts if it is made with the tip of epée; however, both fencers can score from touches made at the same time. An epée hit counts anywhere on the body.

Olympic fencing events

Fencing competition is conducted on a platform called a piste. The surface is 14 m long and 1.5 meters to 2 meters wide. Ten Olympic fencing events (6 individual and 4 team events) are presented in the Summer Olympics. About 8 or 9 teams may compete in each event, depending on how the qualifying teams are distributed.

Men's Olympic fencing events include

  • Individual épée

  • Individual foil

  • Individual sabre

  • Team foil

  • Team sabre

Women's Olympic fencing events began with the women’s foil in 1924. Other women’s events did not become an official part of the Olympic Games until much later: épée in 1996 and sabre in 2004. Women’s Olympic fencing events include

  • Individual épée

  • Individual foil

  • Individual sabre

  • Team foil

  • Team épée

Only once has a single athlete won a gold medal with all three weapons in the same Olympic Games. This feat was accomplished by Italian fencer Nedo Nadi in the 1920 Games.

Team events involve teams of three competing against their opponents over a series of nine 3-minute bouts; the goal is scoring 45 hits to win the match. In the event of a tie, the competitors fight for another minute; the first to score the next hit wins.

For more information on Olympic fencing, visit the website of the sport’s governing body, International Fencing Federation (FIE).

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