An Olympic Fencing Primer for Non-Fencers

Are you drawn to Olympic fencing, even though you have no idea about the sport except that there are swords? Great news! You’ve found a primer that will give you everything you need to know about Olympic fencing, even if you’ve never watched a fencing match in your life. This post has a lot of links to additional and extended information and explanations to deepen your knowledge in every related topic.

Here are the three things you need to know to understand fencing in the Olympics:

  1. Fundamentals of weapons
  2. Basic rules of the match
  3. Competition structure

We’ll give you a quick, foundational understanding of these three things so that you’ll be ready for fencing in the Olympics! The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy it.

Here are a few terms to know that you’ll hear a lot from the commentators and referees:

  • Piste/strip – where the fencers fence. It’s 14 meters long and 2 meters wide
  • Sabre/foil/epee – the fencing weapons
  • Bout – a fencing match between two individuals
  • Lame – the electric west (in foil) or jacket (in sabre) that fencers wear that registers points electronically
  • En garde – assume a start position
  • Allez – begin to fence
  • Parry – knock the opponent’s weapon away
  • Riposte – touch the opponent after a parry
  • Touché – acknowledgment by the referee of a valid hit

Let’s note here that fencing, though it is all about weapons, is one of the safest sports in the Olympics. Safety is serious business in fencing, and the protective gear, along with the rigid rules, allows for there to be lots of fun with little risk of harm. The most common injuries in fencing are bruises and sprains, not pokes or slashes. 

Now that you know the words and some overview, let’s get into the deeper concepts.

1 – Fundamentals of Olympic Fencing Weapons

There are three weapons in fencing – epee, foil, and sabre, also called fencing disciplines. All three of these weapons will compete in Tokyo in 2020, and all three weapons will have each gender compete separately, both individually and as team. That means there are twelve events, including each of the three weapons and each of the genders: 3 weapons (epee/foil/sabre) x 2 events (individual/team) x 2 genders (men/women) = 12 events in total. This is the first time the Olympics feature all possible fencing events. Prior to Tokyo there were only 4 teams events, and each Olympics one discipline in women’s team and one in men’s team was omited, rotating these teams between different Olympics.

The weapons are fairly similar-looking, but they are very different in function. In fact, they’re so different that fencers generally choose one weapon and stick with it. There are lots of occasions where fencers switch early on, and many fencers start on foil because it is so challenging and that makes it a great place to start. By the Olympic level, they are steady in whatever they’re fencing with, though you’ll see many fencers with national titles in different weapons than their Olympic weapons. Sabre in particular is very different from foil and epee as it is a slicing weapon versus poking weapons of epee or foil.

While the size and shape of the weapons themselves are different, this is because of the rules being different. You’ll read more about that below. Epee and sabre are heavier, while foil is lighter. Epee and sabre also have bigger guards around the hand, where foil is less pronounced. 

These weapons were codified in the last hundred and fifty years, and it wasn’t until this year that all weapons and all events were included in the Olympics. That makes Tokyo 2020 a momentous year with the most fencing events ever included in the Olympics! 

The rules and the shape of the weapons determine the feel of the weapons, and they all feel different. Foil is light and fast. Epee is focused and intense. Sabre is all out and hard-charging. The rules of fencing, while having a lot of similarities, differ from one another in many substantial ways, which also dictates their strategies.

2 – Basic rules of an Olympic fencing match

If you had no idea what was going on, you might think that all three weapons were the same thing, in part because fencing goes so fast. All of them do operate under the same basic premise: one fencer touches the other with their sword to get a point. Whoever gets the most points within the allotted time, or whoever reaches a specified number of points before the time is over, wins the match. It’s that simple. 

The weapons are shaped a little differently, but everything is done through electronic scoring to determine who wins. Electronic scoring can be complicated, but just know that if a fencer gets a touch, the scoreboard lights up on its own. The referee can decide if the point that the machine registers is valid. 

The differences come when you decide how a fencer gets a point. 

  • Epee – tip of the sword only gets a point, anywhere on the body
  • Foil – tip of the sword only gets a point, with right of way, only in the torso area (that’s why foil fencers wear a lame, which in their case is an electrical west)
  • Sabre – any part of the blade gets a point, with right of way, anywhere on the body above the waist (that’s why sabre fencers wear a lame, which in their case is an electrical jacket)

Right of way (often called priority in fencing) is a hugely important part of sabre and foil, but the gist is that whoever is taking the action gets the point. The referee decides this, and ultimately the referee decides everything in a fencing tournament. Fencers can challenge, and often do if there is a tough call. 

Each individual bout in foil or epee is made up of three periods of three minutes each, with a one-minute break between the periods. The fencers are going to fifteen points, or whoever has the most at the end of the bout. If the score is tie, there is an additional one minute of extended time, prior to which one of the fencers arbitrarily receives a priority, and if by the end of that minute nobody scored, the fencer with the priority wins.

Unlike foil and epee, there are only two periods in sabre and there is no clock, because the sabre bouts are so fast. Instead, they fence in the first period until one fencer reaches 8 points, have a minute break, and then continue until a score of 15 is reached.

You’ll see fencing coaches right on the sidelines of each bout, yelling with directions and giving boosts of confidence and some instructions during the one-minute breaks. 

3 – Primer of team and individual competition structure

There are two kinds of fencing in the Olympics: team and individual. 

Most fencers who qualify for the Olympics do so through team qualification. Each country’s team is made up of three fencers, and these fencers automatically qualify for the individual competition. In addition, each team has an alternate fencer which can compete only in a team competition and only if there is a real need for that fencer. There are other ways to qualify for fencing at the Olympics, and this happens through rank within a geographical area. We should note that the 2020 Olympics have seen a whole different scope of qualification thanks to the pandemic. Without the high-level qualification competitions and with all the delays, the process had to be adjusted this year. 

Each team is made up of three members of a country, with one alternate in case someone has some issue. In the team competition, all of the points that each individual gains are added up against their opposing country, and this makes for nail-biting and exciting competitions. There are 9 bouts in a team match, with every fencer from one team fencing every fencer from the opposite team. Each bout lasts three minutes or until the score reaches a multiple of 5 and the bout number (that means that the first bout is until the score is 5 or three minutes, the second until the score is 10 or three minutes, and the last, 9th bout until the score is 45 or 3 minutes). The stakes feel huge in team fencing competition! The same rules apply to each team match. The team with highest score by the end of the 9th bout wins. If , however, by the end of the 9th bout (i.e., the time of 3 minutes had elapsed), neither of the teams reached 45 and there is a tie in the score, the last fencers fence additional minute with priority randomly assigned to one of the teams, similarly to the individual competition.

Individuals are going head to head, and one of the most interesting things here is that because the teams are all qualified, you get to see lots of fencers from the same country going for one medal. It’s a fantastic aspect of the competition. 

You can find out more about who is qualified for Tokyo 2020 in our post here, as well as some fun predictions about who we think will make a strong showing. Take those predictions with a grain of salt, as part of the fun of the Olympics is that anything can happen! There are always surprises.

Whether you’re tuning into Olympic fencing for the first time, or coming back to the sport again, we are so excited to have you join us! Fencing is thrilling, and it doesn’t only happen at the Olympic Games. If you enjoy watching the sport now, be sure to come back for World Championships, National Championships, and your local fencing tournaments.