Fencing is one of only five sports to have been included in every summer Olympic Games since Pierre de Coubertin (a keen fencer himself) revived the Games in 1896. The other ever-present sports are swimming, athletics, gymnastics, and (perhaps surprisingly) cycling. Wheelchair fencing has been a feature of the Paralympic Games since their formal inception in Rome in 1960.
Olympic Fencing Events
Men and women both compete in individual events in foil, épée, and sabre. There are team events for men in all three weapons, but at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the only women's team fencing event was in épée (won by Russia).
For some time now, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been concerned about the number of events in the summer Olympics because of the pressure on the host city to house so many athletes, coaches, and officials and so it strictly rations the number of medal events available to each sport. It would appear that the IOC only agreed to the addition of women's sabre as a medal event in Athens in 2004 providing another event was dropped. As the growth in popularity and the rise in the standard of women's sabre clearly warranted an individual event, and as fencing is predominantly an individual rather than a team sport, the sport's governing body, the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE) decided to drop the women's team foil for 2004. At the time of writing, it now looks as if the FIE have decided on a policy of event rotation, with men's team foil and women's team épée both being dropped for Beijing 2008 to bring back women's team foil and bring in a women's team sabre event for the first time.
Many within the sport are much aggrieved by the attitude of the IOC in not allowing gold medal events for men and women in all three weapons for individuals and for teams, especially in the light of fencing's place in Olympic history. For a time, there were strong rumours that sections of the IOC wanted to drop fencing from the Olympics entirely - allegedly because of a lack of popular appeal - but its status appears to be safe for the time being. Plans for the 2012 London Olympics include a Fencing Hall in Olympic Park. However, there have been considerable reductions in the time available and the number of competitors allowed over the last twenty years or so.
The foil is a light sword which has its origins in training or practice weapons rather than actual duelling. Points are scored with the tip of the sword, and the target area is the torso, including the 'v' of the groin, but excluding the neck. 'Right of Way' rules apply, so that if both fencers score a hit, the referee (formerly called the 'President') has to determine whose right of attack it was. This is complicated, particularly with the advent of so-called 'flick hits', but the basic principle is that if you are attacked first, you must parry or otherwise evade that attack before you can attack back. Quick attacks and sequences of feints, attacks, parries and ripostes are key features of foil fencing.
The épée (pronounced 'ep-pay') is heavier and longer than the foil and is a modern sports version of the rapier. Points are scored with the tip, and the whole of the opponent's body is a valid target. There are no 'right-of-way' rules - if the fencers both score a hit, they both earn a point. Épée bouts tend to be a lot more cautious than foil or sabre, and this, along with the simpler rules and larger swords, make épée probably the most watchable discipline to the non-fencer. Whenever fencing appears in TV or film, it is almost always épée that you'll see - usually at something like half-speed. Épée also features in both the men's and women's Modern Pentathlon, along with Pistol Shooting, Riding, Running, and Swimming, though the format and scoring rules are different (see below). Key features of épée are well-timed attacks and counterattacks, with an emphasis on accuracy. Although the whole body is valid target, the closest part of the opponent is their hand, arm, or even their front foot, and the majority of attacks will be aimed at these targets.
The sabre is a modern sports version of the cavalry sabre. Points are scored with the edge of the blade, though (rare) hits with the point also count. The target is the whole body above the waist, including arms and head. 'Right of Way' rules do apply in sabre, and although they are different to those in foil, the same basic principle of having to defend if attacked applies. Modern sabre fencing is lightning fast, with an emphasis on attack and feints. Most attacks are combinations of feints to the head and to the sides.
The single stick was an Olympic event only once, in the 1904 games in St Louis, USA. Albertson van Zo Post won gold for the hosts, and also won silver in foil and bronze in épée and sabre in the same games. Single stick fencing involves using a cudgel or light stick in much the same way as the sabre - trying to hit your opponent with the edge of the stick - but with using parries rather than footwork to ward off attacks. The origins of single stick may lie in training for close quarters fighting with heavy cutting weapons, such as the cutlass. Single stick fencing was on the wane as a sport even then, and is generally regarded as having been subsumed into sabre fencing - although the techniques used may be similar to those of wheelchair fencing (see below).
Fencing was the first Olympic sport which allowed professionals to compete. The first two Olympic Games had 'Masters' events for fencing masters who made their living through fencing - primarily through running fencing Salle d'Arms which taught fencing as a sport and as self-defence, and through exhibition matches. Leon Pyrgos of Greece won the inaugural Foil Masters event in Athens in 1896. In 1900, there were Masters' events in foil, épée, and sabre as well as the main amateur events, and there was also separate épée event for masters and amateurs, won by (master) Albert Ayat of France, who also won the Masters' event. However, Masters' events did not feature at the Olympics after this.
Wheelchair fencing was invented by the paralympic pioneer Sir Ludwig Guttmann in 1953 and was included in the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960. The rules require the wheelchairs to be fixed to the floor, meaning that competitors are unable to close or extend the distance between them, so bladework is all-important. Feet must remain on the footrest, and competitors must remain seated, even if they are physically able to rise. Wheelchairs are placed at an 110-degree angle to each other, with the fencer with the shorter reach deciding on whether the distance will be set in proportion to her reach or that of her opponent. A picture of the piste used in Wheelchair Fencing on the British Council website is worth more than the regulation thousand words. There are Wheelchair versions of foil, épée, and sabre, with restrictions on the target area in foil and sabre - hits cannot be scored below the waist on the wheelchair. There are two categories of competition - Class A for athletes with good balance and recovery and full trunk movement; Class B for athletes those with poor balance and recovery but full use of one or both upper limbs.
Innovations and Milestones in Olympic Fencing History
1896 (Athens) - Emile Gravelotte of France (foil) and Ioannis Georgiadis of Greece (Sabre) triumph in the first Olympic games. Foil was absent from the 1908 games, but other than that, men's foil and sabre have been permanent fixtures of the games ever since.
1900 (Paris) - Cuba's Ramon Fonst wins the first ever men's épée competition.
1904 (St Louis) - Cuba win the first ever men's team foil event (beating the only other entrant, the USA) and Cuban fencers complete a clean sweep with wins in all three individual events as Fonst retains his épée gold and takes home the foil gold for good measure. The team foil event is absent from the following two Olympics, but returns in 1920 and has been ever-present ever since.
1906 (Athens) - Gustav Casmir of Germany overcomes George van Rossem of the Netherlands in the final of the first (and only) Olympic three-hit sabre competition.
1908 (London) - France win the first men's team épée and Hungary the first men's team sabre competition. Both events have been part of the games ever since.
1912 (Stockholm) - France and Italy boycott the Olympic Fencing events over disagreements over the rules. The FIE is formed the following year as the sport's governing body in order to agree a standard set of rules.
1924 (Paris) - Denmark's Ellen Osiier wins the inaugural Women's Foil event as the International Olympic Committee starts to accept the case for more women's events at the games.
1936 (Berlin) - Electric scoring equipment is used for épée for the first time. Successful hits trigger a switch in the tip of the épée which operates scoring lights. The lack of 'off target' hits in épée makes reliable electrical scoring much easier than for foil and sabre.
1956 (Melbourne) - Electric scoring equipment is used for foil for the first time, after the development of an electric jacket to cover only the target area enables the equipment to distinguish reliably between an on-target and off-target hit.
1960 (Rome) - USSR win the first ever women's team foil gold. The first formal Paralympic Games is held, and the host nation make a clean sweep of all the fencing medals in the three fencing events - women's foil, and men's individual and team sabre.
1964 (Tokyo) - The Paralympics wheelchair fencing event expands to include men's individual and team épée, men's novice's foil, and women's team foil.
1968 (Tel Aviv) - The Paralympics expands further to include individual and team events for men in foil, épée and sabre.
1988 (Seoul) - Women's Épée is added to the paralympics. A new system of classification of disability for wheelchair fencing is introduced, allowing a more integrated and inclusive competition.
1992 (Barcelona) - Technical difficulties in using electrical scoring equipment in sabre (due in large part to the difficulty in registering hits with the edge of the blade) have been overcome, and the equipment is used at the Olympics for the first time. Women's team épée is included in the Paralympics for the first time.
1996 (Atlanta) - Laura Flessel wins double gold in helping France to win the first women's team Épée, and winning the first individual women's Épée. Scoring by hits scored replaces scoring by matches won in team events.
2004 (Athens) - Women's team foil is dropped, but Mariel Zagunis of the USA wins the first women's sabre gold medal. See-through masks are introduced in sabre to mixed reviews from competitors.
2008 (Beijing) - It is expected that the men's team foil event will be dropped in favour of women's team foil, and that women's team sabre team will replace the women's team epée.
Structure of Olympic Competition
As with many sports, competing nations do not have an automatic right to enter their top fencers in the Olympics, although some concession is usually given to the host country. Qualification rules vary from Olympics to Olympics, but typically only the top 40 fencers per individual event can enter, with qualification being decided by the world rankings, which are determined by performance in qualifying tournaments. Sometimes membership of a qualifying national team squad is sufficient to qualify for the individual event.
Typically, eight nations will contest each team event. The top four in the World Rankings qualify automatically, and the remaining four are made up of the top team in each region that has not already qualified (Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa).
The usual structure of an individuals' fencing competition with more than ten or so fencers is to start with a round of poules for seeding. Fencers are divided up into small 'round robin' poules in which everyone fences everyone else in their poule in a short bout of first to five hits. Some competitions use the results produced to produce a second round of seeded poules before moving to direct elimination, but others use only one round to produce the seeding system for the knockout competition. The first to 15 hits progressing to the next round, with the loser being eliminated. While some sports include qualification for the 'best loser', or chances for defeated competitors to play off to stay in the competition (repechage), there's no real tradition of this in fencing.
At the Olympics, however, time restraints do not allow a round of seeding poules. Instead, seeding is decided on qualification points obtained in nominated tournaments, and the competition goes straight into direct elimination in bouts of first to 15 hits all the way through to the final. The lower-seeded fencers compete for a place in a round of 'last 32', while the higher seeds receive a bye. From the 'last 32 round' the winners progress to the next round and the losers are eliminated, leading to a final to decide gold and silver and a bronze medal bout between the losing semi-finalists.
The team events use a similar system of seeded direct elimination as the individual events, but the scoring rules are rather more complicated. Each team is made up of three fencers plus one reserve. Each of the three team members will fence all three opponents. The first bout finishes when one fencer reaches a score of five hits, or when three minutes have passed - whichever is the sooner. The second fencer from each team then takes over. The scores of the first bout are carried forward, and the second bout finishes when one of teams' cumulative scores reaches ten, or when three minutes have passed. And so on, for up to a possible final score of 45 (5 hits x 9 bouts).
For example, imagine you are fencing third for your team and you find yourself 10-4 down. Your bout finishes when either you or your opponent reaches 15, or after three minutes, so you have the opportunity to score 11 points for your team. This method of scoring makes for a very exciting competition, as a lead can quickly evaporate if a fencer for the leading team finds herself struggling. It also means that the final bout is vital, and is almost always fought by the strongest fencer on each team. This system of scoring was first used in Atlanta in 1996, replacing the old system of nine bouts of five hits, with one point per bout won. This was much less exciting, as the result could be decided after only five of the nine bouts, and was also potentially unfair. A team winning five bouts by a single hit (5-4) and losing four bouts without scoring (0-5) would win despite only scoring 25 hits to their opponents' 45 hits.
Competition Structure for Fencing in the Modern Pentathlon
The rules for the épée discipline in the Modern Pentathlon are different. Pentatheletes fence everyone else in the competition once, and the winner is the first person to score a hit. Unlike mainstream épée, double hits do not count. If neither competitor has scored a (single) hit after one minute, the result is recorded as a defeat for both athletes. The total points score for the event is calculated according to how far each competitor has exceeded or fell short of victory in 70% of her bouts, with 70% carrying a value of 1000 points.
In many countries, a small number of mainstream fencing tournaments are run using these rules (known as 'one hit épée'), and are popular with 'classical' fencers and traditionalists who regard these rules as being close to fencing's roots as the art of 'hitting without being hit'. However, in the UK at least, most of these are regarded as fun or novelty tournaments.
Olympic Fencing on the Television
In most countries (apart from the sport's superpowers, France, Italy, Hungary, and Russia), there is very limited television coverage of fencing during the Olympics. This might seem surprising, given the popularity of swordfighting in TV and film. Errol Flynn's films are still popular, and more recent films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, the new Star Wars Trilogy, and innumerable adaptations of the novels of Alexandre Dumas are considerable commercial successes.
Unfortunately, the techniques used to make fencing look spectacular are the polar opposite of the techniques that make fencing effective. Film requires large and dramatic movements, daring attacks, and lots of clashing of blades - all at a relentless pace. However, a successful fencer will make small and precise movements - a big, dramatic attack is easily spotted and parried, while a quick, direct, sneaky attack is much harder to deal with. Similarly, only small movements are required to defend oneself to ward off attacks - all you have to do is just enough to make the attack miss - there's no extra points for taking your opponent's blade miles away from the target. A good fencer will always seek to conserve energy wherever possible; there's no point tiring yourself out too early in a competition.
Olympic-standard fencing is very quick - too quick for non-fencers to be able to follow. A good fencer will be able to pick out the moves and the strategies being used by each competitor, but the casual observer will always struggle to make sense of what she is seeing, beyond a whirl of blades, some lights, and the briefest of explanations from the referee, which will certainly be in jargon, and sometimes in jargon and in French. After a few seconds, the fencers will resume their positions and will carry on the bout, with little time for the TV commentators to analyse or explain what has just happened. Although the rules for épée are relatively straightforward, the 'right of way' rules in foil and sabre are very difficult to explain to new fencers, never mind a general audience.
Recent innovations have included the introduction of clear 'lexan' masks, allowing competitors a better view and allowing spectators to see the faces of the combatants. Protective clothing - traditionally white - may now be other light colours, and the names of fencers and flashes of their national colours are also now permitted.
However, it could also be argued that the introduction of electric scoring systems has changed the sport as a spectacle for the worse. Before electric scoring equipment, two judges watched each fencer for hits, with a 'President' in overall charge. It would be up to the President to 'phrase' the action (eg, 'initial attack from my right, parry and riposte from my left, continuation of the attack from the right'). The President would then ask the relevant two judges whether the attack landed or not for each attack in turn until a hit is scored. Thus, hits that couldn't be seen couldn't be counted, and it was in the interest of competitors to score clear hits on the opponent and to clearly parry or evade their opponent's attacks. Electric scoring equipment has replaced the judges, and now only the President (renamed the referee in order to be more 'accessible') remains. Even relatively inexperienced fencers find their fencing style changing substantially when fencing in a non-electric bout (known variously as 'steam', 'dry', or - more colloquially - 'acoustic').
It's unlikely that we'll see more fencing on our television screens during the Olympics, apart from when one of our own team is competing. However, a BBC Talking Point during the Sydney Olympics in 2000 showed no strong desire among respondents for fencing to be dropped. Only one person argued this on the grounds that it's not popular, far outweighed by people who wanted to drop events that were based on subjective scoring by judges or those who saw no place for big professional sports that have their own high-profile championships.
Nedo and Aldo Nadi, Italy
Aged only 18, Nedo Nadi won gold in the individual men's foil in the 1912 games in Stockholm, but it is for his performances in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp that he is chiefly celebrated. He was part of winning Italian teams in foil, épée, and sabre, and won the individual events in foil and sabre - five gold medals. No games were held in 1916 because of the First World War, where doubtless he would have added to his total, and both Nedo and his younger brother Aldo turned professional after 1920 and were ineligible for future Olympic games. Nedo's achievement in the team épée is all the greater, as his father (fencing coach Beppe Nadi) had a low opinion of the épée, forcing Nedo to practice discreetly behind his father's back.
Aldo Nadi was also part of the gold-medal winning foil, épée, and sabre teams in 1920, and finished runner-up to Nedo in the individual sabre. Although Nedo won more medals, fencing history regards Aldo as the greatest ever fencer - virtually unbeatable in all three weapons for the best part of two decades. The publication of his comprehensive treatise on foil technique, 'On Fencing', in 1943 cemented his reputation.
Aladar Gerevich, Hungary
Aladar Gerevich is the only athlete in any Olympic event to win the same event six times, and the only Olympic athlete to win gold medals in six different Games - one more than British Olympic rower Sir Steve Redgrave. Gerevich was part of the gold-medal winning Hungarian men's sabre team in Los Angeles (1932), Berlin (1936), London (1948), Helsinki (1952), Stockholm (1956) and - at the age of 50 - in Rome (1960). If it wasn't for the interruption to the Olympics caused by World War Two, the record could well be eight. In addition to the team event. He also won a bronze (1936), a silver (1932), and a gold medal (1948) in the individual men's sabre, and a bronze in men's team foil in 1956. Like the Nadi brothers, Gerevich was from a fencing family. His wife, Erna Bogen, their son, Pal Gerevich, and Erna's father, Albert Bogen, also won Olympic fencing medals for Hungary.
Edoardo Mangiarotti, Italy
Edoardo Mangiarotti holds the record for the most fencing olympic medals, a total haul of 13 - 6 gold, 5 silver and 2 bronze in team and individual foil and épée. Edoardo's first medal was a gold in Berlin in 1936 in the team épée, followed by two silvers in London in 1948 in team épée and foil, and a bronze in the individual épée. In Helsinki in 1952, he won double épée gold and double foil silver in the team and individual events. He continued his team success at Stockholm with double team gold in foil and épée, and a bronze in the individual épée. In his final Olympics in 1960, he won his fourth team épée gold and a men's team silver. His older brother Dario, whose career was curtailed by injury, was his épée team-mate in 1948 and 1952, and lost out to Edoardo in the épée final in of 1952.
Ildiko Rejto-Ujlaki, Hungary
Ildiko Rejto-Ujlaki holds the record for the most Olympic medals in women's fencing events - two gold, three silver, two bronze. She was ever-present in the Hungarian women's foil team, winning silver in Rome in 1960, gold in Tokyo in 1964, bronze in Mexico in 1968, silver in Munich in 1972, and finally bronze in Montreal in 1976. She won the double in 1964, adding the individual women's foil gold to team gold, and also won a individual bronze in 1968. She continued to compete after this, and won the women's foil at the World Veterans Championships aged over 60 in 1999. She achieved all this in spite of being born profoundly deaf. It's said that her early coaches used to pass her written notes, but the main disadvantage for her in fencing terms would have been in being unable to hear the buzzer on the electronic scoring equipment which indicates a hit and that fencing should stop.
Pal Szekeres, Hungary
Pal Szekeres is the only person to have won medals in the Olympics and in the Paralympics, winning bronze as part of the Hungarian foil team in Seoul in 1988. In 1991 he was involved in a horrific car crash on the way back from a fencing tournament in Germany, suffering serious spinal damage. Six months later, he left hospital in a wheelchair. But just over a year later, he won Paralympic foil gold in Barcalona in 1992. He retained his foil gold in 1996, and took the sabre gold for good measure. In 2000 he took bronze in foil, and in 2004 won a sabre bronze on his 40th birthday. Since his retirement, Pal Szekeres has been an active figure in the administration and promotion of paralympic sport, and has also worked for the Hungarian government.
From Fencing to Duelling - Paris, 1924
Controversy dogged the 1924 fencing competition, leading to at least two duels being fought over 'matters of honour'. Aldo Boni, a member of the Italian team, expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms at some decisions by a Hungarian judge called Kovacs. The story goes that Kovacs spoke little or no Italian and enquired about what was said. An Italian-born Hungarian fencing master, Italo Santelli, was either asked by Kovacs or volunteered to translate. Santelli translated the outburst word for word, in a very direct literal way. Kovacs demanded an apology, and the Italian team withdrew from the fencing team competition, singing fascist songs as they left. After the Olympics, the Italians accused Santelli of speaking out in order to damage Italy's chances, as he feared that his team, Hungary, would lose to them if they faced them. Santelli challenged the Italian captain, Adolfo Contronei, to a duel. Although Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had officially banned duelling, he allowed an exception in this case, though in the event Italo's son Giorgio invoked the duelling code to take the place of his 60-year-old father. Giorgio drew first blood from Contronei after a couple of minutes, and honour was satisfied, though there was no immediate reconciliation. It's said that the two met again at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles - Giorgio having moved to the US and become a coach - and became friends.
Meanwhile, Kovacs was involved in another dispute over officiating with another Italian, Oreste Puliti, after Kovacs and his fellow judges alleged that Puliti's team-mates had deliberately thrown their bouts against him to increase his chances in the individual sabre event. Under the 'round robin' competition structure in place at the time, good results against his compatriots - all top competitors - would have given Puliti's chances a huge boost. Puliti is said to have punched Kovacs, which led to a duel four months later. The duel was drawn, and the two shook hands and parted amicably.
These were far from isolated incidents in terms of fencing leading to duelling. It's said that Aldolfo Contronei had fought at least six duels prior to fighting Giorgio Santelli, and fought both Nadi brothers and on each occasion was lucky to escape with his life. Some accounts portray Contronei as a deliberate provocateur who sought duels with the best fencers through constant insults in order to satisfy his need for what we'd now call an adrenalin rush. Nedo Aldi regarded him as a menace, and went out to try to kill him in a duel when honour would have been satisfied with first blood, only to be thwarted by Contronei's belt buckle. It seems he got the message. Edoardo Mangiarotti is said to have challenged the aging Aldo Naldi, only to back out when the maestro chose pistols.
However, what may have been acceptable among rival fencing masters - who in many ways are much like today's professional boxers in terms of hype and rival-baiting - should not have happened at the Olympic Games.
The Onischenko Scandal - Montreal, 1976
Colonel Boris Onischenko of the USSR was a world class Pentathlete, finishing in the top three in the World Championships every year from 1969 to 1974 (three bronze, one silver, one gold). In the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Onishcenko won the individual silver and was part of the Soviet squad that won gold in the team event.
On the second day of the 1976 Men's Team Modern Pentathlon, Onischenko faced Britain's Adrian Parker in the épée event. Parker was a swimming specialist, and was not expected to beat Onischenko, and indeed duly lost. However, Jim Fox, the British team captain, was convinced that Onischenko's winning attack had not landed. When it came to his turn, Fox deliberately leaned back to evade - rather than parry - Onischenko's attack. Nevertheless, the light on the scoring equipment showed that a hit had been scored, even though it was obvious to everyone that the attack was well short of hitting. The officials suspected nothing more than a short circuit, and sent Onishenko's épée to the technicians to be checked and fixed. He was allowed to continue with another épée, and won eight out of his nine bouts.
The technical jury later examined Onischenko's épée, and discovered that a push-button had been installed in the handle, which when pressed would register a hit, whether or not the point had landed. Instantly dubbed 'Disonischenko' by the western media, he was disqualified along with the whole Soviet men's Pentathlon team. There was very nearly an international incident over the issue, with rumours of the Eastern bloc countries threatening to boycott the Olympics. This was the height of the cold war, and the Modern Pentathlon was dominated by the military, so success had a significance beyond just sport. Onischenko was a half-colonel in the KGB, and Fox was a sergeant in the British Army. Eventually, the decision was accepted and Onischenko was unceremoniously bundled out of the country by Soviet team managers and never competed again.