Fencing consists of three different weapons: foil, epee and saber. While each weapon has a style and a set of rules uniquely its own, the goal is the same for all weapons … to hit one’s opponent without being hit in return.
One of the most difficult concepts to visualize in foil and saber is the rule of right-of-way. Basically, the fencer who properly initiates an attack has the “right” to hit their opponent. The fencer being attacked must first defend themselves prior to making an action against the attacker. Once the attack is parried (blocked) the defender has the “right” to hit with a riposte and the action continues until a touch is scored or the referee calls a halt. If both the red and green lights are illuminated, both fencers landed on the valid target area, however, only one fencer can have the right-of-way. The referee decides on who had right-of-way and awards the touch accordingly. In foil, if the fencer with the right-of-way lands off-target, the referee will stop the action, place the fencers back on guard. In both foil and saber, simultaneous attacks do not result in a touch and the referee will place the fencers back on-guard and the bout will continue.
In epee, there is no right-of-way rule … whoever hits first scores the touch. Normally there will only be one light indicating the touch, however, the machine will register touches that are made within 1/25th of a second and both lights will illuminate. In this case, the referee will award a point for each fencer.
The first round of a competition uses the “pool” system. The fencers are divided into groups with each fencer competing against everyone in their pool. Each pairing is called a bout. The bout begins with the referee’s command of “On-Guard … Ready … Fence.” The fencers have three minutes of actual fencing to score five touches to win the bout. If time runs out and neither fencer has scored the required five touches, the fencer who is ahead wins the bout. If the score is tied at the end of fencing time, the referee will flip a coin or use another method to determine “priority.” The clock is reset for one minute of fencing and if the score remains tied at the end of the additional minute, the fencer with priority wins the bout.
Once the pool round is over, the fencers are seeded according to the results and they begin the direct elimination rounds. For all events except Y10 (Youth 10 and under) and Veteran events, fencers must score 15 touches to win the bout. In direct elimination rounds the bouts are nine minutes in duration with three, three-minute periods and a one-minute rest between periods in foil and epee. In saber, the first period ends when either three minutes have elapsed or when one of the fencers has scored eight touches. If time runs out and neither fencer has scored the required touches, the fencer who is ahead wins the bout. If the score is tied at the end of fencing time, the same process used in pool bouts is followed. At the end of each round, those who win advance to the next level, while those who lose are eliminated from the competition.
For Y10 and Veteran events, direct elimination bouts consist of two, three minutes periods with a one-minute rest between periods; the first fencer to score 10 touches wins. If the score is tied at the end of fencing time, the same process used in pool bouts is followed.
All bouts are held on a strip that is 14 meters long and two meters wide. Fencers must remain on the strip to score touches and penalties are imposed if one goes off the side. If a fencer retreats off the end of the strip before a touch is scored, the fencer is penalized with a touch being awarded to the opponent.
How to Follow the Action
For those new to fencing it is difficult to follow the lightning speed of the actions. To become more comfortable in following the bout, it is best to focus on one fencer. The one being attacked defends by making a parry, a motion to block or deflect the opponent’s blade. Once they have properly defended themselves, they can make a riposte, or answering attack. The two competitors keep changing between offense and defense trying to get the advantage over their opponent. Whenever a touch is made, the referee will stop the bout, describe the action and determine if a touch should be awarded.
While fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from their opponent, i.e., out of range of their opponent’s attack, each fencer tries to outmaneuver the other attempting to attain the optimum attack distance. At times a fencer may make a “false” attack to gauge the types of reactions their opponent may make. This allows them to plan ahead so they can deceive their opponent and score with the “real” attack.
As you become accustomed to the speed of the game and the movements the fencers make, the tactics and strategies become more apparent, and you will gain an appreciation for the finesse and fascination of this Olympic sport.
Spectator etiquette differs somewhat from what happens at many other sporting events but is most similar to tennis. Calling or shouting can interfere with the concentration required of the competitors and the officials and quiet should be maintained when fencers are in action. Spectators are encouraged to applaud and cheer following a good touch, however, it is best to do so only after an official has awarded a touch.