Fencing is the art of fighting with a weapon, and one of the four sports that have featured at all of the Olympic Games since 1896, when the first edition in the Modern Era was held in Athens, Greece. Although Fencing has existed for many centuries – documents referring to it date back to approximately 1190 BC – it only became a sport in around the 15th century, when duels were bloody and occasionally fatal.
Initially viewed as a kind of military training, Fencing’s transformation into a sport took place as a result of three innovations that arose between the 17th and 18th centuries: the foil, a sword with a ball on its tip; masks; and rules establishing the scores awarded for hitting different parts of an opponent’s body.
Italy and Germany are said to be the “parents” of modern Fencing, but no one really knows where it arose.
The first fencing events in the Olympic programme were foil fencing and sabre fencing, in 1896, and épée fencing debuted four years later, in Paris. Team competitions began in 1908, in London – all of this just for men.
Women began competing for medals in foil fencing in 1924, when the competition was hosted once more in the French capital. Women first competed in épée competitions in 1996, in Atlanta, and in sabre competitions in 2004, in Athens.
Each one of the weapons used gives its name to a discipline, which has its own rules. The three disciplines differ in terms of touches and valid body surface. In foil fencing, one scores a point by touching the end of the weapon on the adversary’s chest. In épée fencing, one can hit any part of the opponent’s body, while in the sabre, one can make contact with any part of the blade and the valid body surface extends from the waist upwards.
The athletes play on a metallic track with 14 meters long by 1.5 to 2 meters wide. Using special sensors, fencers are connected to an electronic scoring system that indicates whether or not a touch is valid.
Individual bouts take place in three rounds of three minutes each, or until one fencer manages to touch his or her adversary 15 times. In team events, two teams of three competitors each compete in nine rounds lasting three minutes each, and the team with the most points, or that hits its opponents 45 times (exactly three times the individual figure) is the winner.
In the event of a tie, in both the individual and team competitions athletes fence for a further one minute, with one of the athletes randomly assigned ‘priority’. The first to score a hit is the winner, but if no hits are made during this time, the ‘priority’ athlete wins the bout.