The Basics of Olympic Fencing, Part 2 - Structure & Evolution

Olympic fencing has moved and evolved considerably over the last one hundred and twenty seven years, and it’s been quite the journey. Understanding how fencing has changed as part of the Olympics can give us insight into what fencing is today and where it will take us tomorrow. 

This is the second of three posts in which we delve into what Olympic fencing is all about. In Part 1, we talked about how the Olympics came about and how fencing fit into them from the beginning of the Modern Olympiad. Here in Part 2, we’ll look at the structure of our sport within the Olympics and how it’s changed over time. Read Part 3 to learn how Olympic fencers get to that level, including the path to qualification and the individual attributes that get fencers to the Olympics. 

First off, let’s go into how fencing got started in the Olympics and what the road has been like to get here. 

Olympic fencing events

Fencing events in the Olympics have hardly been static, at least not in the last thirty years. In fact, events in every sport have not been static.  

Why the constant changes? The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the governing body of the Olympic Games. They make all of the rules, and they choose which sports are included and which ones are not. In recent years, new sports have only been added when a sport dropped out in order to keep the Games from growing too large. Within a sport like fencing, adding new tracks of competition is vetted all the way through the IOC and must be signed off on. The additions of epee, then sabre, and now all of the team events speaks to the increased popularity of fencing. A major decision-making point for the IOC is the public interest and media coverage of a sport. The more popular a sport is, the more heavily it is included. 

Occasionally, sports get dropped from the Olympics, though this is extremely rare. In fact, baseball and softball are the only two sports that have been discontinued since 1936, though events do come and go. There have been attempts to shrink the scope of the Games by dropping some sports, but every time it happens there is backlash. The bottom line – fencing is unlikely to go anywhere in the Olympics any time soon. 

Let’s first give you a snapshot of what events have been included in the Olympics, broken down by year. This chart is a lot to look at, but take a minute and look through to see the patterns before you keep reading. 


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Men’s Epee Masters
X


























Men’s Foil MastersXX


























Men’s Sabre Masters
X


























Men’s Epee Amateurs-masters
X


























Singestick

X


























9600040812202428323648525660646872768084889296000408121620
Men’s Individual FoilXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Men’s Team Foil

X

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXX
Men’s Individual Epee
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XX
Men’s Team Epee



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
X
Men’s Individual SabreXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Men’s Team Sabre


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

9600040812202428323648525660646872768084889296000408121620
Women’s Individual Foil





XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Women’s Team Foil












XXXXXXXXXXX
XX
X
Women’s Individual Epee





















XXXXXXX
Women’s Team Epee






















XXX
XXX
Women’s Individual Sabre






















XXXXXX
Women’s Team Sabre
























X
XX

Though all three weapons have been included for men going back over a hundred years to 1912, women’s fencing wasn’t included until 1924. You’ll notice that it took a few years for the Olympics to figure out what events they were going to include in the Games. Singlestick fencing uses a wooden sword and it was something along the lines of modern sabre fencing, though it’s not quite that straightforward. 

Now let’s break down the timeline of Olympic fencing events that are more relevant to today.

There was a long stretch from 1924-1992 when foil was the only women’s fencing event in the Olympics. The first women competed in the Olympics in 1900, the second Olympiad, just not in fencing. In fact, there is still not parity in events between men’s and women’s sports in the Olympics, with 39 events closed to women in Tokyo, though women do finally compete in all sports. The transition of women’s sabre into the Olympics is the most recent change, which follows the trend of international sabre competitions being opened to women in general. We don’t have time to go too deep into this topic here, but we talk about it in more detail in our book From Cool Runnings to World Superpower: The Rise of American Fencing

It has been a long road, but at last in the 2020 Olympics, all events are finally included. 

In past years, there was a rotating series of fencing events in the Olympics. There was always the individual event for foil, epee, and sabre, but only two of the three held team events. In 2016, there was no team foil for women and no team sabre for men. In 2012, there was no team sabre for women and no team epee for men. In 2008, there was no team epee for men. 

We are now at a place with the 2020 Olympic Games that all fencing events are included, and we can tentatively hope that we’ll stay the same for a while now. The popularity of fencing has been growing a great deal in the last thirty years, so hopefully that positive movement forward will continue. 

Team vs. individual Olympic fencing

Let’s first start off by saying that we’re jumping ahead a bit right here. We are talking about what happens in the competitive rounds of the Olympics in this next section. Qualifying for the Olympics in fencing is a whole other piece of the puzzle, and you’ll learn all about that when you read Part 3. Getting to the Olympics is a totally different conversation.

Right here, we’re only focusing on what happens once an individual or team makes it through. Any fencer who has competed before is going to have an idea of how this all works, but there are slight differences in the Olympic version. 

Individual Olympic fencing

Unlike any other fencing competition, there is no preliminary pool round to establish the seeding for the Direct Eliminations. Instead, all fencers go directly to the elimination, based on their individual FIE ranking. Since the ranking is known well in advance, the fencing tableau is established quite a few weeks before the competition. Fencers have a good idea who they are going to face and can prepare. There are 34 or up to 37 fencers in the individual competition, depending on whether the host nation used its quota to add fencers into a specific event or not.

Individual competition is pretty much the same as it is for any competitive fencer. Whoever gets to fifteen points over three rounds of three minutes each wins. There is a one minute break between each of the rounds, and of course the ref stops the clock between each of the phrases. 

There are 8 countries which qualify for team competition. If a country is qualified for team competition, then her 3 athletes are qualified for individual competition as well, and it’s up to that country to choose her 3 fencers based on internal qualification criteria of that country. However, if the country is not qualified for the teams, then remaining 10 fencers, all from different countries, for the individual competition are chosen based on either their individual ranking (6 fencers: 2 from Europe, 2 from Asia-Oceania, 1 from Africa and 1 from Americas ) or their zonal qualification (4 fencers, 1 from each zone), in which case the country cannot use her criteria for qualification: it must be a fencer who qualified internationally.

Unlike all other fencing competitions, there are no two Bronze medalists. There is always a fence-off for a third place, that happens before the final match for the Olympic Gold.

Team Olympic fencing

Team competition is wholly different, and that’s because each fencer is fencing another member of the opposing team in rounds. At the end, the final score is based on how everyone does in their individual matches, though there is a great deal of thought and strategy that goes into how that all plays out. 

Like in individual competitions, the ranking of teams is well known quite ahead of the Games and so the team matches tableau is established in advance as well. The countries are free to qualify their fencers per their internal criteria.

Here’s a quick idea of how it goes:

  • There are 3 fencers on each team, and 1 substitute.
  • Each fencer from each team fences every team from the opponent’s team in a bout of 3 minutes. This means that there are 9 bouts in a team match.
  • Each bout ends when the score reaches the multiple of 5 for that bout number or 3 minutes lapse. This means the first bout ends when the score is 5 (or 3 minutes), the second ends when the score is 10 (or 3 minutes), third – when the score is 15 (or 3 minutes), and so on, with the 9th bout ending with the score of 45 (or 3 minutes)
  • If the score is tied at the end of the last, 9th leg, then there is a priority minute and then the fencers who fenced in this leg (called anchors) will determine the winner of the match
  • The order of fencing is predetermined in the team competition and is very important. Teams use the way they put their roster in a very tactical and strategic way, based on who they are facing in the upcoming match and the order is not revealed to their opponent until the match itself.

The team matches are among the most fascinating events to watch. The relay format creates some of the best sport drama in the Olympics, because a losing team has a chance to catch up in the next leg.

Interesting to note, per regulations, only the fencers who actually fenced in the Games, will be medalled. If a substitute fencer did not fence even a single bout during the entire team competition, will not receive a medal, despite how essential this fencer was in order to get the team qualified and prepared for the Olympic Games. For example, the Russian Men’s Foil team fencers the whole day only with its main roster (Safin, Akhmatkhuzin, and Cheremisinov), and the coach decided to not let Dmitry Zherebchenko to fence even once. As a result, when the Russian Team won Olympic Gold, Zherebchenko wasn’t on the podium. All other teams that medaled at Rio had all 4 fencers fence at the Games. Sounds unfair, but that’s part of the sport: as a team member your goal is to win for the country you represent, and if this means that the team does not need you in that moment and has great momentum, well, this might mean you are going to be without an Olympic medal.

If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of team fencing, check out our previous blog Understanding Fencing Team Competition for a detailed breakdown. 

Fencers who compete in the Olympics are chasing both the individual and the team medals, though the individual medal does carry more weight in terms of rising to the very, very top. Members from the same country team often find themselves at odds with each other on the piste for the individual medal, knocking one another out in some of the most exciting moments of the Olympics. Of course, the best result of this and the dream for every country is what happened in Women’s Sabre in Beijing Olympic Games 2008. Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward won Gold, Silver and Bronze for the United States. Every coach in the world will tell you this is the best possible outcome of the competition.

An important part of the structure of Olympic fencing is the team vs individual component. Lots of individual sports have team competitions in the Olympics – gymnastics, swimming, etc. One reason is the way that this structure allows countries to come together and fight alongside one another, rather than always against each other. It builds camaraderie. 

All fencers are part of the wider team of their country as well. When someone says “Team USA”, they mean all of the athletes who are competing for the United States, regardless of their specific sport. Each individual is competing for themselves, each team is competing for their country, and each country team is competing to support the goal of growing and community. It’s all about the bigger picture and being part of the Olympic Movement. Who couldn’t find amazing inspiration in that?

Want to know more about how a fencer gets onto the team? Click through to Part 3! Unclear about how the Olympics started and what their history is? Be sure to check out Part 1!