First Olympic Appearance: 1896
by John Gettings and Mark Zurlo
One of the four sports that has been featured at every modern Summer Games, (wrestling, track & field, and swimming are the others) the sport fencing you'll see at the Olympics isn't much like what you're used to seeing in swashbuckling movies.
Although sword fighting dates back to ancient Egypt, today's fencing owes more to 16th-century European rapier combat, which depended more on thrusts as a means of attack. In competitions today, fencers earn points by hitting target areas on their opponents that change depending on the three types of swords used.
The foil is the lightest of the three swords. A point is awarded when a hit is made with the blade's tip anywhere on an opponent's torso, from the shoulders to the groin, front and back, not including the arms, neck, head, and legs. Women began to compete in foil at the 1924 Olympics.
The épée is about the same size as a foil, but it's heavier and has a larger guard above the handle to protect the hand from valid hits. That's because in épée the entire body is a valid target area. Épée combat was exclusively for men at the Olympics until 1996.
The sabre is a modern version of a cavalry sword. Bouts fought with sabres are distinguished by extravagant slashing movements. Hits can be made with either the tip or edge of the light, flexible blade; the target area is the waist up, including both arms and the mask. Women began competing with the sabre for the first time in the 2004 Olympics.
Individual bouts consist of three, three-minute competitions with one-minute breaks between them. The object of each competition is to be the first to score 15 points (i.e., hits). All bouts take place on a playing area 5-feet wide and 46-feet long called a piste. Hits are registered electronically through wires and special clothes worn by the fencers that trigger a light when a hit has been made. In team competition, each team member fences against the three members of the opposing team.
Medals are awarded for men’s and women’s Individual Epée Foil and Sabre, men’s Team Foil and Team Sabre, women’s Team Epée and Team Foil.
France dominated this sport for much of the 20th century, but in recent years Russia, Italy, and Hungary have made their presence felt.
At the London Games, the fencing competition will be held in the ExCel competition venue, which lies outside the Olympic Park and was constructed as an international conference and exhibition center in 2001. The center houses five different arenas and will host seven sports for the Games.
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