Fencing is an exciting sport that originated from medieval sword duels. From an activity where one of the involved individuals would end up either dead or injured, fencing evolved to become a modern sport in which two athletes use safe sword-like weapons to touch each other and score points. The sport works out both body and mind, with bouts so exciting that indeed remember those in which fencers were fighting for their lives, a long, long, time ago. Fencing has three different weapon categories: epee, foil, and saber. The three are very different from each other, with different sets of rules, tactics, techniques, equipment, and types of fencers. Having such different categories is part of the beauty of fencing, there are particularities about each one of the weapons to attract very different types of people to the sport. Fencing have some very specific rules without which the sport can't be understood. Learn below about some of the most important rules to know about fencing.
Every sport has their own safety rules, and so does fencing. But particularly with fencing, those rules are a little more specific and must be followed more thoroughly than in most sports. Although fencing is a safe sport, fencers are still dealing with steel blades that can break and become sharp, trying to "stab"each other at a very high speed and at a close distance, and so for the sport to be practiced properly, the safety rules must be followed. Some of the safety rules are written in rulebooks and regulations, while others are just preventive practices applied by fencing masters in their clubs. Some of the safety rules are:
The priority rules are often the most confusing part about fencing. They are used in saber and foil only, to decide who gets awarded a point. To understand them, it is first important to understand that in foil and saber, not every time a fencer touches anm opponent, that fencer gets awarded a point, mainly when they both touch each other at the same time. A point will be awarded depending on what both fencers did before, which lead to the touch. The priority rules, as the name indicates, define who has the priority in scoring, and therefore who will end up adding a point to the score. To begin with, a fencer who initiates the attack, that is, the offensive action, will have priority. Let's say fencer A moves forward aiming to touch his opponent, initiating the offensive action. Fencer B also moves forward, in an offensive movement, aiming to score, but starting slightly after fencer A. If both fencers touch each other, a point is awarded to fencer A, because he was the one that initiated the offensive motion, being the first to start an attack. But a fencing match is not only composed of fencers trying to initiate an attack, they can also choose to try and parry an attack with their weapon, and score by risposting. Let's imagine now that fencer C began an attack much earlier than her opponent, fencer D. Fencer D however, was prepared for that, and successfully used her weapon to parry the attack, and execute a risposte. If both fencers touch each other, a point will be awarded to fencer D, because she got the priority by parrying her opponent's attack. There is more to the priority rules, be we will look more into that later, these are basics to understand how fencing and saber or foil works.
As you know by this point, fencing has three different weapons, with differing rules, styles and equipment. Saber is probably the fastest and most explosive of all weapons. Saber fencers have explosiveness and great footwork. In saber, the valid touching area is anywhere from the waist up, which includes the mask and the back. For that, saberists wear an electric jacket with sleeves and a mask different from that of foil and epee. Different from the two other weapons, points can be scored with the tip and the side of the blade. Talking about scoring points, saber makes use of the right of way rules when awarding a point. Although foil also uses them, referees interpret saber and foil actions differently, and so the right of way rules are not used exactly the same for both categories. It does sound complicated, but once you start to fence, it will be easier to see the differences between saber refereeing and foil refereeing. In saber, and only in saber, a fencer is not allowed to cross his or her legs forward while the bout is ongoing. If a fencer does that, the fencer will be punished with a yellow card. We will get into the cards later on.
Foil is considered by many the mixture between the two other fencing weapons, saber and epee, as it contains elements of both. Foil is the most technical weapon in fencing, and the challenge is to combine good technique with speed in execution. Foil fencers have great arm and leg coordination, necessary to control the tip of the blade. The valid target area in foil is the torso, excluding the arms. Naturally, there is a lot left that is not a valid target area, and so in foil fencers touch each other outside the valid area very often. When that happens, the scoreboard will light up white, indicating that a fencer was touched outside of the valid area, and the bout will be stopped. Like saber, priority rules are used in foil. Now let's imagine a situation where fencer A and fencer B are fencing foil. Fencer A clearly initiates an attack, thus having the priority to score, but touches her opponent on the arm, outside of the electric jacket. Fencer B, does not move forward, but instead tries to parry the attack, but doesn't manage to do so. Still, fencer B touches fencer A in her chest, right in the middle of the electric jacket, and the scoreboard lights up with a white light for fencer A and a green light for fencer B. In that case, no one is awarded a point, as fencer A had the priority but didn't manage to touch inside the valid area. A good way to think about that is that priority rules determine a point, rather than just touching on target.
Epee is the simplest looking and easier to understand weapon in fencing, which attracts many beginners to adopt it as their primary weapon. Epee is a game of timing and patience, where fencers need to choose the right moment to successfully attack. In epee, there are no electric jackets like in saber and epee, as the whole body, from the tip of the toes till the top of the mask are valid scoring areas. In addition to that, epee does not use priority rules, making a pretty straightforward modality for those who have never watched it. Basically, in epee, if fencers do not commit any faults, everytime a fencer touches his or her opponent, independently of who initiated the attack, the fencer gets a point. In the event that both fencers touch each other exactly at the same time, both are awarded a point. It truly does not get much simpler than that.
As seen above, each fencing weapon has its own scoring system, with their particularities and different set of rules. Nonetheless, some scoring rules are valid for all weapons. All weapons make use of the same electronic scoreboard, which indicates when a touch happens, who touched who, and if it was inside the valid area or not for foil. The scoreboard also keeps track of the points and the time. The scoreboard has a green light, a red light, and a couple of white lights that are only used for foil. If the fencer on the left touches his or her opponent, the red light will go on, while the green one will go on if the fencer on the right touches his or her opponent. a point to be valid, athletes cannot commit any faults before or while executing the action that leads to their touch. For example, in saber, if a fencer touches his opponent but crosses his leg to do so, he will be not awarded a point, as he committed a fault. In foil and epee, fencers have three or one 3 minute long periods to score a set number of points, which depends on which stage of a competition fencers are competing on. In between those periods, there are 1 minute long breaks in which fencers rest and get instructions from their coaches. Because saber is so fast, there is no point in keeping time, therefore saber is not divided in periods. Saberists get a break in the middle of their bouts when they reach 8 points, when a bout is fenced up to 15 points.
Fencing has a system of cards to punish those who commit faults during bouts. It is the referee's duty to spot those faults and penalize the fencer accordingly. In fencing there are three different cards: yellow, red, and black. A yellow card works like a warning to the fencer; a red card given to a fencer results in a point awarded to his or her opponent; a black card results in automatic defeat and possibly elimination from the competition. All faults in fencing are divided in four groups based on what card is given the fencer when the fault is committed. The first group of faults is punished by a yellow card, and red cards after that every time a fault is committed. Fencers who commit second group faults are penalized directly with a red card, and more red cards every time another fault is committed. Third group faults are punished with a red card, followed by a black card. Fourth group faults, the most serious and unusual ones, are punished with a straight black card.
What happens if a bout ends up tied an the time runs out? For foil and epee, the bout goes into overtime. In saber, it is impossible for time to run out, since time is not kept. With that, saber bouts never go into overtime. But for foil and saber, that is quite common. In overtime, fencers get one extra minute of fencing action to untie the match. In that case, fencers compete until time ends, or until one of the athletes scores, in a type of "sudden death". But what if after that one minute, the score is still tied. Because of that possibility, before overtime starts, a "coin is flipped", and a fencer gets the overtime "priority". With that, if the last minute ends and the score is still tied, whoever got lucky enough to get priority, wins the bout. Overtime bouts are always exciting and often hard to officiate, with fencers eager to score a point while time quickly winds down.
Although fencing is an individual sport, there are team events, which are very important in olympic qualification and thus very valued by countries and fencers. A fencing team is formed by 4 athletes, of which 3 are in the starting lineup. In a team bout, there are 9 matches, in which fencers have to score five or more points to win, in which fencers from the opposing teams face each other. The scores are cumulative, and so a complete team bout ends when a team first reaches 45 points. Fencers cannot fence each other more than once. Does it sound confusing? Let's imagine the following situation: Team A and team B will fence each other in the final of the team men's foil event of a competition. Team A is composed of fencer 1, fencer 2, fencer 3, and fencer 4. Team B has fencer 5, fencer 6, fencer 7, and fencer 8. Fencers 4 and 8 will start on the bench for their teams. In the first match, Fencer 1 beat fencer 5: 5-2. In the next bout, team B makes a comeback, and fencer 6 defeats fencer 2 8-1, bringing the total aggregate score to 10-6 in favor of team B. Just like that the match goes on, until the team scores 45 points together. Fencers 4 and 8, who started on the bench, can come in as the bout goes, and can only be replaced later by the fencer that occupied their spot in the starting lineup before.
In general, fencing competitions follow the same format and follow the same rules, especially those organized by the International Fencing Federation (FIE). Competitions start with a round of pools, where fencers are divided into groups called pools, which are decided based on previously established rankings. All fencers in a pool will fence each other in 3 minute long bouts that go up to five points. Pools have no more than eight athletes and no less than five. Based on the pool results, a competition ranking is established, with fencers who did better on their pools seeded higher, and fencers who did not did well seeded lower. Depending on the competition rules and the number of participants, a percentage of the lowest seeded fencers after pools can be eliminated from the competition, and in some big youth competitions, a new round of pools is played. After pools, fencers who advanced will compete in the direct elimination. Direct elimination bouts go up to 15 points, and last up to three 3 minute long periods. Which athletes face each other is going to be decided based on the pool result, and so the whole direct elimination round will be drawn right after pools; with that fencers now who they may fence next, if winning the current round. Fencers keep fencing direct elimination until only two are left, and a final is played, deciding a champion.