Road To The Olympic Games

Fencers favour fancy footwork

Fencing a fast-paced, tactical contest

Athletes compete in fast-paced, tactical contest

Zhang Liangliang, left, of China competes against Andrea Baldini of Italy in the men's foil at the world fencing championships in Beijing in April 2008. ((Getty Images) )

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Fencing confuses most Canadians, who are unfamiliar with the popular European sport. But the rules of this fast-paced, tactical pursuit are straightforward and easy to understand. 

Olympic fencing bouts are held on a playing area also known as a strip or piste. It’s 14 metres (46 feet) long and two metres (6 feet, 7 inches) wide. A centre line divides the piste into two equal halves; two end lines indicate the rear limits of the piste; two on-guard lines run parallel to the centre line and are on either side of it, about two metres away. 

Protective clothing

The fencer wears specialized protective clothing, from head to toe. It’s usually made of Kevlar, the same material used for bullet-proof vests. He also wears a steel mesh mask with ballistic padding, protective socks, shoes, and a leather glove for the sword arm only.  

A foil is a light thrusting weapon, while the epee is a heavy thrusting weapon and the sabre is a cutting weapon. 

Playing games

A fencer scores a point when he touches his opponent’s target area. The target area varies, according to event. 

In the foil, it is the front and back of the torso, from shoulders to the groin. In epee, the target area includes the athlete’s entire body, even head and feet. In sabre events, the target area is from the bend of the hips, in front and back, to the top of the head. 

Fencers are wired and an electronic scoring system indicates when a hit has occurred. 

The foil and the epee have small buttons at the tip of the weapon, which register the touch when depressed against the opponent's target. The saber's edge is conductive and will register a touch against the opponent's target, on contact.

In individual events, the winner is the first to score 15 points. Each bout is nine minutes and is divided into three, three-minute periods. If time expires without either competitor reaching 15 points, the fencer who finishes with the most points wins.  

Team competition features nine individual bouts, each one lasting four minutes. A bout ends sooner if a fencer earns enough points to increase his team total to a multiple of five (after the first bout), 10 (after the second bout), etc. If neither team has 45 points when the all the bouts are completed, the team with the most points is declared the winner.  

In both individual and team events, if the score is tied after regulation time has elapsed, fencers play one sudden-death minute, in which the first hit wins the match. To avoid defensive play, the fencers draw lots before the extra minute to determine a winner in the event that no hit is recorded.

At the outset of a bout, the referee stands at the side of the piste and the fencers retreat to their on-guard lines. The fencers salute each other and the referee, then the bout begins.

In a bout, the fencers try to score points by hitting hit their opponent’s target area while using various offensive and defensive moves and techniques, including:

Lunge: The attacker quickly thrusts the weapon at the opponent, pushing off from the back leg 

Fleche: The attacker drives toward the opponent with a running motion and the weapon extended toward the opponent. 

Parry: The defender wards off the opponent's weapon with his or her own weapon. 

Riposte: A counterattack after a successful parry. 

The referee can issue yellow, red or black cards for penalties. A yellow card is a warning; a red results in a point; and a black an expulsion. Black cards are assessed for cheating or unsportsmanlike behaviour.  

The right-of-way is an important rule that determines, in saber and foil, who has the right to score a point. The right-of-way goes to the fencer who is the first to initiate an attack, or the last to stage a successful parry. When both fencers land a hit at the same time, only the fencer who had the right of way receives a point.  

Rarely, both fencers initiate correct attacks at precisely the same time. In this case, the referee declares a tie and no point is awarded.

Epee does not use the right of way. The first fencer to touch the opponent's target receives a point. If both fencers touch within 1/25th of a second of each other, both fencers get a point.

Maureen Nisima of France celebrates victory in the women's team epee event at the world fencing championships in Beijing in April 2008. ((Andrew Wong/Getty Images) )
Emphasis on mental toughness

A great way to learn more about fencing is to study one competitor.  

"Don't try to watch everything," says Danek Nowosielski, a three-time Olympian and High Performance Trainer with the Canadian Fencing Federation. "Just watch one individual and notice what he does and how he reacts and how his movements make the other fencer react." 

Watching this way you'll often pick up trends in a particular event. For example, in epee, the first fencer to commit to an attack is often the first to get hit, making it the more strategic and defensive of the three events. 

By comparison, the attacker often has the advantage in foil and sabre duels. Position on the narrow piste is important. When attacking fencer drives his opponent to the end of the piste, he has a huge advantage and will often score, since the opponent cannot retreat beyond the end of the piste. Doing so, results in a penalty point.

Fencing is as much about footwork as how one handles the sword. Fluid motion, sudden changes in direction and rapid acceleration are integral.  

The sport also requires mental toughness. "It is start, stop, start, stop. You have three three-minute rounds and maybe four or five matches in a single day. You're fencing for less than an hour but there is all this time in between, and in a crucial match at the end of the day, you have to deliver. So it requires a lot of toughness," says Nowosielski. 

Like so many other combat sports, fencing calls on tremendous agility, reflexes, tactical smarts, speed, discipline and hand-eye coordination. Elite fencers must determine the precise moment to exploit an opponent’s vulnerability. The slightest hesitation leads to disaster.