Olympic Preview: Fencing

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

First Olympic Appearance: 1896

by John Gettings and Mark Zurlo

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One of the four sports that has been featured at every modern Summer Games, (wrestling, track & field, and swimming are the others) the sport fencing you'll see at the Olympics isn't much like what you're used to seeing in swashbuckling movies.


Did You Know?
The Dow family of fencers is believed to be the only mother-father-son trio in Olympic history to compete in the same event. Warren qualified for the United States team in 1936, his wife Helen in 1948 and their son Robert in 1972.


Although sword fighting dates back to ancient Egypt, today's fencing owes more to 16th-century European rapier combat, which depended more on thrusts as a means of attack. In competitions today, fencers earn points by hitting target areas on their opponents that change depending on the three types of swords used.

The foil is the lightest of the three swords. A point is awarded when a hit is made with the blade's tip anywhere on an opponent's torso, from the shoulders to the groin, front and back, not including the arms, neck, head, and legs. Women began to compete in foil at the 1924 Olympics.

The épée is about the same size as a foil, but it's heavier and has a larger guard above the handle to protect the hand from valid hits. That's because in épée the entire body is a valid target area. Épée combat was exclusively for men at the Olympics until 1996.

The sabre is a modern version of a cavalry sword. Bouts fought with sabres are distinguished by extravagant slashing movements. Hits can be made with either the tip or edge of the light, flexible blade; the target area is the waist up, including both arms and the mask. This year women will fight sabre for the first time in the Olympics.

Individual bouts consist of three, three-minute competitions with one-minute breaks between them. The object of each competition is to be the first to score 15 points (i.e., hits). All bouts take place on a playing area 5-feet wide and 46-feet long called a piste. Hits are registered electronically through wires and special clothes worn by the fencers that trigger a light when a hit has been made. In team competition, each team member fences against the three members of the opposing team.

[Medals will be awared in Athens for men's and women's individual foil, épée, and sabre; men's and women's team foil and épée; and men's team sabre.]

France dominated this sport for much of the 20th century, but in recent years Russia, Italy, and Hungary have made their presence felt.

At the Beijing Games, the fencing competition will be held at the fencing hall inside the Olympic Green Convention Center. The convention center will also play host to the press and broadcast centers for the games.

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