The Basics of Olympic Fencing, Part 1 - History & Spirit.
Image Credit: FRANCK ROBICHON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

There is no event in the world of sports that holds so high a place as the Olympics. It is held up as the pinnacle of not only sport, but part of what society is striving for in general. This is true of fencing as well as many other sports. The Olympics are complex and simple all at once, and they have a history that reaches back thousands of years, long before the world and realities that we live in today. 

In order to understand how fencing is seated within the Olympics, we have to first understand what the Olympics are. 

This is the first of three posts that will explore what Olympic fencing is all about. We’ll start by exploring the Games as a whole, how they fit into the world and we as the sport of fencing fits into them. In Part 2, we’ll dive deep into the structure of Olympic fencing and how it has evolved. Finally, in Part 3 we’ll go through how Olympic fencers get to that level, including the qualification paths and the personal traits that make Olympic fencers rise to the top of the podium.

Let’s start with a foundation in what the Games are and how they came about, including how fencing became part of this internationally renowned sport competition. 

Olympic History from Ancient Greece to the 20th century

The Olympics’ history goes back around three thousand years when they first started in Ancient Greece. The legend goes that Heracles (Hercules if you’re Roman) himself founded the event, and they were held every four years. They get their name from where they took place – Olympia. The original contests included things like running, long jump, boxing, and equestrian events. These were not just sporting events though, they were celebrations of culture. Artists and poets gathered during the Olympics to share their art and seek patrons. In later Olympics, heralds and trumpeters were included. 

There wasn’t any kind of sword fighting in those early competitions. Pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling that used brute force to submit the opponent. Boxing and wrestling were similar to boxing and wrestling today. Though swordsmanship was absolutely part of the culture of the time, it wasn’t part of those early Olympics.  

Eventually, the competition declined after the Romans took over. Emperor Nero entered himself into the chariot race around the turn of the millennia and promptly fell off his chariot, making an absolute fool of himself. A couple of hundred years later they were banned altogether as a pagan festival, after almost twelve hundred years of consistent competition. 

Flash forward to 1892 and the rise of the modern Olympic movement. Throughout the 19th century, there was an ever-growing interest in sport as a way to challenge us and push humanity to become the best version of itself. There were other international sports competitions prior to the Olympics – they didn’t just fall out of the sky. Organizations for various sports, including fencing, had competitive international events. 

Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France brought the idea of reviving the Olympics to influential sports organizations of the time, and they almost immediately funded him and moved to begin the first Games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed as the governing body, which it continues to be. Just four years after those initial meetings, the first modern Olympiad opened in Athens, Greece in 1896. There were 14 countries, 10 sports, 43 events, 280 competitors, and 0 women allowed to compete. The United States was the only non-European country. That inaugural Olympiad did, however, include men’s sabre and men’s foil. Yes, fencing is part of the original Olympic Games! 

Today, the Games are split into two different versions – the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics, which are alternated every two years. The Winter Games must obviously be held in a cold place where snow and ice can keep from melting, and they are much smaller than the Summer Olympics. 

There have only been a few times in the history that the Games have been stopped, but those years when they were canceled are still counted. In 1916 they were canceled due to the Great War (World War I), then in 1940 and 1944 they were canceled due to World War II. The only time they have ever been postponed was in 2020, due to the coronavirus. Though they take place in 2021, they’re still called the 2020 Olympics. It’s certain that Tokyo will look unlike anything that has come before it, but it will certainly continue the Olympic tradition. 

Since those early days of the de Coubertin, this has been labeled “The Olympic Movement.” It was always seen as more than just a competition, far more. It calls us all to grow through sport and push ourselves to the highest we can. This is why people keep this process going and growing over time, and it’s why Olympic fencing continues to be a place that we train towards. It’s not so much about making it to the gold medal as it is about making it to the best version of ourselves. 

Olympic symbols

The central theme of the Olympics is to bring humanity together to become better through sport. The motto of the Games is Citius – Altius – Fortius, which is Latin for Faster – Higher – Stronger. We are constantly in pursuit of becoming more than we are. During the 2021 games, when the IOC meets in Tokyo, the word “together” is expected to be added to the Olympic motto, symbolizing the spirit of unity that is woven so tightly into the philosophy of the Games. Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communis.

The five rings of the Olympic flag represent the five continents, and the colors of the flag encompass the six colors of the flags of the represented countries at the time that it was adopted in 1920.  The rings of the Olympics are iconic and instantly recognizable. 

The Olympic flame is another symbol that inspires us through the Olympics. With every Summer Olympics that is held since 1928, the Olympic flame has been lit in Olympia, Greece. The fire is started with a mirror and the sun before it’s transported to the site of the Olympics, wherever that may be. There are backup flames that are carried nearby as the flame does sometimes go out. In fact, modern technology means there are two little flames inside each torch. When it gets to the Opening Ceremonies, there are all kinds of ways that they use it to ignite the cauldron that will burn throughout the Games and is extinguished during the Closing Ceremonies. 

What is of the utmost importance here is the consistency of the Olympic philosophy. There is a higher purpose with the Games, always. It’s what draws people to them and pushes us to want to be a part of them. Everyone has some familiarity with the Olympics, whether they have spent hours watching the competition or not. You don’t have to be a serious fencer to know what they are and what they mean. 

The Olympic Spirit

Pierre de Coubertin once said, “The Olympic spirit is neither the property of one race or one age.”  That notion of the Olympic spirit goes far beyond one single quote. In 2010, the IOC created a program called Olympic Spirit that is specifically there to foster this heart of inspiration. It focuses on fair play and solidarity, as well as community and coming together. 

We see this echoed again and again when we watch the Games. Some of the best stories are of those athletes who never make it to the podium, but instead overcome many obstacles to participate at all. The Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics are a moment when everyone comes together. They’re a spectacle, but they’re also the moment when competitors who are unlikely to make it to the top of the podium get to have their moment. Each country that is represented gets to walk in with their flag, and the flag bearer is especially a point of pride. In 2012, American saber fencer Mariel Zagunis was chosen as the flagbearer for the Olympics in London. At the time, she was already a gold medalist and a high-ranking athlete. Nonetheless, carrying the flag holds a special place and is a huge honor. 

Image credit: University of Notre Dame

Though countries are seemingly pitted against each other during the Olympics and though the rivalry is fierce, there is still a deep sense of camaraderie. Even between opponents. That’s not to discount the politics that have filtered through into the Games, especially during the Cold War, but the Olympic spirit always seems to shine through. International politics have affected the Olympic movement in some pretty fundamental ways, which we explored in the book From Cool Runnings to World Superpower: The Rise of American Fencing. The film referenced in the title is of course about the famous Jamaican bobsled team, which worked to overcome so many obstacles to reach for their dream. The reason they are so inspirational to us is because they worked for it and took joy in all that sport gave them. 

Another encouraging point of union thanks to the Olympics, has been with North Korea and South Korea, who have marched together in several opening ceremonies. They are currently pursuing a bid to host the 2032 games jointly, a truly amazing turn for enemy countries. Korean fencing has continued to be on the rise, with the South Korean team winning silver in women’s epee in 2012 and Park Sang-Young becoming an epee Olympic Champion in Rio 2016. It’s good to see how our own sport can be touched by the connections made in the Olympics. 

This whole spirit is why we keep coming back to Games again and again. The Olympics are more than any of us alone can be. There are so many stories, too many stories to tell here.  

We’ll leave you with the last quote from Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

As fencers, this most especially resonates with us. It is not necessary that we conquer our opponent, but only that we fight well every time we step up to the strip. Whether we are Olympic fencers or have just picked up our first sword.