History of fencing

Fencing is one of four sports that has appeared in every modern Olympics, dating back to 1896. Swimming, gymnastics and track and field are the others. The first women’s event was added in 1924 and the Olympic program currently has three individual and two team events per gender. After collecting seven medals at the 2012 London Games, Italy surpassed France as fencing’s all-time medal leader. The Italians have led the fencing medal table at each of the last three Olympics, collecting seven medals at each Games. France failed to collect a fencing medal at the 2012 Olympics for the first time since 1960. The United States has found success recently after claiming only one fencing medal between 1964 and 2000. In 2004, Mariel Zagunis became just the second American and first American woman to win an individual gold medal. Zagunis successfully defended her individual sabre title in 2008, while her U.S. teammates completed a sweep of the podium in that event. In total, the U.S. collected six fencing medals in Beijing, its second-highest output at a single Games.

The basics

Combat techniques are essentially the same as those used several hundred years ago. Bouts begin with the two unmasked opponents saluting first each other and then the officials by raising the blade to the chin and dropping it. Then, masks down, the duelers assume the en garde position. Standing 4 meters (13 feet) apart, each athlete distributes his weight evenly and curls up his rear arm for balance. Thus, the smallest possible target area is presented to the opponent. The attack varies with each event, but it is usually a “lunge” or a “thrust.” In a lunge, an attacker closes the distance to the target by extending his front leg; a thrust is simply the quick extension of the sword blade without foot movement. A short jump towards the opponent, known as a “balestra,” may be combined with the lunge. A short run towards the opponent is known as a “fleche,” and a compound attack is one made with several blade movements. Recovery from a lunge followed by an attack is called a “reprise.” A “parry” is a blocking move of an opponent’s thrust, and the subsequent offensive action by the fencer making the parry is known as a “riposte.”

Why white?

Every summer, the world’s best tennis players are clad in all white at the All England Club for the Wimbledon Championships. But in fencing, fencers are always wearing white because, in the pre-electric days of the sport, touches were determined by an ink spot left on the uniform by the weapon. Cheating was possible by soaking a uniform in vinegar: when a weapon hit the vinegar-treated material, the ink was dissolved and no mark was left behind. Today, scoring is done electronically and wirelessly. When an attacker’s blade hits the opponent in a valid target area, a signal is sent to the scoring box which indicates whether a point was scored or not.