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The art of swordsmanship has been practiced since Biblical times and has evolved through the ages from deadly combat to an Olympic sport. Trigger-fast reflexes and a quick mind are needed to be able to strike without being struck.

Three swords are used in fencing competitions: the foil, which has a flexible rectangular blade; the épée (pronounced EPP-ay), which has a rigid triangular blade; and the sabre, which has a flexible triangular blade with a blunt point. Individual and team competitions are held for each.

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All three weapons have been modified for electronic scoring. There are two light towers at opposite ends of the strip. When the point of the weapon is depressed, a light flashes on the sidelines signaling the touch. A flashing red or green light indicates a point or blade has landed in a valid target area on the fencer nearer that tower. The official, known as the director, must confirm the touch before it counts.

In a fencing bout, the objective is to touch your opponent with your sword. Each touch is worth one point, and the fencer who reaches 15 points first wins the bout. For a team bout, the goal is to score 45 points before the other team.

The fencers battle on a "strip," or piste, which is a mat 14 meters long and 2 meters wide. If the fencer crosses the rear boundary with both feet, the opponent is awarded a penalty touch. If he should step off the side of the strip, the other fencer is allowed to advance 1 meter toward the opponent's end of the strip.

To start the match, both opponents take the en garde (on guard) position. This stance is assumed with the rear arm crooked upward, and the sword arm partially extended toward the opponent. The basic attacking action is the lunge, executed by thrusting the sword arm at the target and kicking forward on the front leg. The attack is successful if a touch is scored on the valid target area. In foil fencing, only touches on the torso are counted. In épée, the entire body, head to foot, is a valid target. In sabre, the valid target is from the bend of the hips to the top of the head. A movement of the blade designed to block an attack is called a parry.

At the Olympics, the individual competition is a direct elimination format. Bouts are in three periods of three-minutes each. If neither fencer reaches 15 touches (or hits) by the end of the third section, or round, the fencer with the most touches is the winner. In the case of a tie at the end of a regulation bout, there is one minute of extra fencing time added. The fencer scoring the first touch is the winner.

News, History, and Fast Facts

  • You don't have to be face-to-face with a foil to get an action-packed view of the sport. Check out the Athens 2004 site.
  • The International Olympic Committee has information about the equipment and terminology of the sport, as well as facts about fencing's past.
  • Point your mouse to the USOC fencing page for a summary of fencing history, a rulebook, an equipment guide, and a simple glossary.
  • FIE is the International Fencing organization.
  • Get more to the point about fencing at U.S. Fencing.
  • Fencing.net takes you in-depth with the sport.

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Olympians will compete in dozens of sports this summer. Even though Gateway to the Summer Games can't feature them all, you can learn about each and every one by visiting the sites listed below.

Portions of the above text were excerpted from Share the Olympic Dream--Volume II.
© 2001 by Griffin Publishing Group/United States Olympic Committee.

For information on purchasing Griffin materials, please visit the Griffin Publishing Group Web site at http://www.griffinpublishing.com.


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