The Basics of Olympic Fencing, Part 3 - Qualification & Competition

The most high-profile event for fencers in the world is the Olympics. The sport itself is pretty much the same as what the novice fencer practices – fencing is fencing. However, it’s easy for people to get lost in the whole winding road of qualification and style. The more we can understand how Olympic fencing works, the more we’ll enjoy it! 

In our previous two posts on the Basics of Olympic Fencing, we walked you through the history of the Games and how fencing fits into that history. In Part 1, we shared with you how the Olympics came about and how the Olympic spirit flows through fencing. In Part 2, you learned how the structure of the Olympics affects fencing. Now, we’ll take you through the qualification path that leads to the Olympics for fencers, as well as exploring what qualities an Olympic fencer must have in order to reach these heights. 

Olympic fencing qualification

The path to becoming an Olympic fencer is based on rank and/or qualifying tournament placement. This kind of path should be pretty familiar to most competitive fencers, but we’re going to lay it out clearly so that it’s easy to understand for anyone.

We should note here that the Junior Olympics in the United States are not at all affiliated with the Olympics. Check out this post on the Junior Olympics if you’d like to read more about what that fencing competition is all about.  

The Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (FIE) is the governing body of fencing. Every sport that competes in the Olympics has its own governing body that funnels athletes into the Games. FIE sets rules and guides international fencing norms, which then trickle all the way down to the newest fencer at a club and all the way up to the highest-ranking fencers in the world. 

It’s really a confluence of two factors that lead to fencers making it into the Olympics. 

  • FIE ranking, teams and individual
  • Zonal qualifying tournaments

The FIE divides the world up into four zones. These zones play an important role in how fencers make it to the Olympic Games, both in terms of team and individual competition. Those four zones are:

  • Africa
  • The Americas
  • Europe
  • Asia-Oceania

Those are pretty wide swaths of geography. This means that athletes from South Korea are competing against athletes from Australia for placement in the Olympics. It means that fencers from Seattle are competing with those from Buenos Aires. Zones are critically important because teams and individuals are initially vying for a spot in the Games against others in their zones. 

Team fencing qualification for the Olympics

Now let’s go into team fencing qualification for the Olympics. Each team in fencing is composed of three fencers, with a fourth fencer who acts as an alternate. Before we go into how a team gets to the Olympics, let’s understand how a fencer gets on their country’s team. Every country has its own governing body for fencing, just as every sport as its own international governing body in the Olympics. That national governing body determines how athletes qualify for their national team, and it can vary from country to country. In the United States, our governing body is USA Fencing. Here’s what it takes to qualify to represent the United States in the Olympics as part of Team USA. Note that Olympic qualification is the same for all three weapons.

  • You must be a United States national with a valid US passport and over the age of 13.
  • Top 3 athletes on the USA Fencing Senior Team Points-Impacting Events qualify for the team, with the fourth athlete on the list becoming the alternate

If, for any reason, an athlete who is nominated has to drop out or is removed from the team, they are replaced with the next person down the list. That’s how a fencer qualifies for the team in the United States. In some other countries, a coaching team or the national governing body can use different criteria to determine their fencers.

Now let’s talk about how a team qualifies for the Olympics!

Eight teams qualify for each team event in the Olympics, women’s and men’s sabre, foil, and epee. The top four teams by overall rank at the end of the qualifying period (which was March 2021 was Tokyo Olympics), regardless of zone, are in. The next four spots go to the top-ranked fencing team in each of those four zones, as long as they are in the top 16 in the world team ranking overall. If a zone doesn’t have a team in the top sixteen that is not already qualified, the next highest-ranked team from any zone is qualified. 

The team determination factors into who fences in the individual competition: 3 fencers from each qualifying country can fence in the individual competition and it is up to that country to define which are these 3 fencers based on their own criteria and qualification process.

Individual fencing qualification for the Olympics

Qualifying for the individual events in Olympic fencing is first based on the team qualification. There are 34 fencers who qualify for each of the twelve individual events. Let’s break down who gets into the rounds for individual fencers.

  • 3 fencers from each team (24 total fencers)
  • Top 2 fencers from the Europe region
  • Top 2 fencers from the Asia-Oceania region
  • Top 1 fencer from the African region
  • Top 1 fencer from the Americas region
  • 4 fencers, one per zone, through zonal qualifying tournaments
  • *8 additional individual fencers from the host country, spread across all categories in addition to the 34. 
  • Important to note that in the above individual selection athletes from already qualified countries are skipped, regardless of their ranking, to broaden the countries diversity in the Olympic Games

Qualifying for the individual fencing tournament in the Olympics is not easy, and to build to that level takes many years of working through high-level, international competitions. In addition, the team component of qualifying for fencers adds another whole dimension that is unusual and changes the dynamic. And since this path is the best to qualify for the Olympics and allows 3 fencers from that country to compete individually, the team competition at the international level is super important and super prestigious. And that’s understandable: if a country’s team is qualified via team path, then 3 fencers from that country participate in the individual event; if not – in the best case, only 1 fencer would be able to qualify.

Olympic competition specifics

Now that we know how a fencer gets to the Olympics, let’s talk about what happens once they get there. 

Each weapon has the same process once the Games get started. The basics are the same for individual and team Olympic sports. 

  • Preliminaries (starting with direct elimination table of 64)
  • Quarter-Finals
  • Semi-Finals
  • Finals

Individuals are eliminated through a direct elimination tournament format. The final two fencers vie for Gold and Silver medals, while the third and fourth place fencers go for the Bronze in a separate match. Individual fencing bouts in the Olympics go to nine minutes or fifteen points. 

Team competition is similar in format in terms of the four sections of the competition, but it’s necessarily more complex. There’s a round robin of members of each team competing against each other, allowing each member of a team to fence against each member of the opposing team once, for nine total bouts. Team fencing bouts are three minutes long and go to five touches. Rounds continue until a team gets forty-five points, or the team with the highest score at the end of the time wins if no one gets to forty-five touches. As with individual fencing, teams are organized in direct elimination format and final bouts for Gold/Silver and Bronze/4th place.

The big players in Olympic fencing

Though Olympic fencing is the same in many ways as the fencing that we all participate in day in and day out, the stakes can feel higher at this international level. It seems the world is watching in a way that they don’t at another time – because they are!

They say that Olympic Gold can be won by any fencer among the 34 competing, and there’s a good reason for that sentiment. Every fencer that is qualified for the Olympics is very good in their own right, but the Olympics also put so much pressure on the shoulders of top fencers that it evens the playing field. The public pressure on the Olympics is like nothing else, and that’s added to the pressure to take the most advantage of what is seen as a once in a lifetime opportunity. While it’s true that qualifying is an honor and the top of a huge mountain of life, every athlete still wants to make it to the top of that podium. This is why underdog athletes have a chance to take advantage of this moment in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. 

All that being said, the big players in Olympic fencing are the usual suspects from the leading countries. Look for Italy, France, Korea, Russia, Hungary, China, and of course the United States, who we root for unabashedly. 

Why the Olympics are important

For fencers, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of our sport. It’s about the competition and how hard the athletes work, the podium and the medals, but it’s about so much more than that. The Olympics represent our ability to dream big and to push ourselves. 

You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to participate in the spirit of the Games. As fencers, it’s wonderful for us to watch not just the current athletes, but also to go back and look at Olympics past to see how our sport has grown and how we can be inspired by these incredible fencers.  NBC owns the rights to broadcast the Olympics and has since 1964. If you want to watch the Games, you’ll want to look to their coverage to see it live. The GREAT news is that past Olympic fencing bouts are readily available online! You can watch past finals on the Olympics YouTube channel.

Earlier on in this series, we shared a lot about how the Olympics are an effort to bring the people of the world together. That’s the true essence of what we’re doing here. Going all the way back to Pierre de Coubertin and those early versions of the Modern Olympics, we can see the vision of a world that is unified through sport. Even further back, we can see the wonderful genesis of this high level of competition in those first Olympics in Ancient Greece.

As fencers, we hold some of that legacy with us today. Fencing is a wonderful vehicle to show that we can work together and become better, and the Olympics are a platform that we can find joy and growth in.