Fencing: A Modern Sport
Fencing is a fast and athletic sport, a far cry from the choreographed fights you see in the movies or on the stage. Instead of swinging from a chandelier or leaping from balconies, you will see two fencers performing an intense pas de deux on a 6-feet by 44-feet strip. The movement is so fast the touches are scored electrically - a lot more like Star Wars than Zorro.
The Fencing Bout
Fencers win a bout (what an individual "game" is called) by being the first to score five points (in preliminary pool play) and fifteen points (in direct elimination play) against their challenger, or by having a higher score than their challenger when the time limit expires. Each time a fencer lands a legitimate hit - a touch - on their challenger, they receive one point. The time limit for preliminary pool play is 3 minutes and a direct elimination match is 9 minutes consisting of three 3-minute periods with a one-minute break between each. Fencers are penalised for crossing the lateral boundaries of the strip, while retreating off the rear limit of their side results in a touch awarded to their challenger. Team matches feature three fencers matching up against another team of three in a "relay" format. Each team member fences every member of the opposing team in sequence over 9 rounds until one team reaches 45 touches or has the higher score when time expires in the final round. Foil, epee and saber are the three weapons used in fencing. While some fencers compete in all three events, elite fencers generally choose to focus their attention on mastering one weapon.
Foil: The Sport of Kings
The foil is a descends from the light court sword formerly used by the aristocracy to train for duels. It has a flexible rectangular blade, roughly 35 inches in length and weighing less than a pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land on a legitimate target: the torso from shoulders to groin in the front and to the waist in the back. The arms, neck, head and legs are considered off-target - hits to these areas temporarily halt the fencing action, but doesn't result in any points being awarded. This theory of on-target and off-target evolved from the concept of 18th-century fencing masters, who instructed their pupils to attack only the vital areas of the body i.e. the torso. Although, the head is a vital area of the body attacks to the face were considered unsportmanlike and thus discouraged. Top foil fencers still employ the classical techniques of parries and thrusts, but the flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern elite foil fencer to attack an opponent from a variety of impossible angles. Competitors often attack down the fencing strip at their challenger, looking to whip or flick the point of their blade at the flank or back of their opponent. Parrying (blocking) these attacks can be very difficult.Therefore, the modern game of foil has developed into a complicated and exciting sport of multiple feints, ducking and sudden, explosive attacks.
Rules: Understanding "Right-of-Way"
One of the most challenging concepts for novices to foil fencing to grasp is the rule of right-of-way. Right-of-Way is a concept of armed combat thatdecides who receives a point when the fencers have both landed hits during the same action. The right-of- way rule is that the fencer who starts to attack first will receive the point if they hit a valid target. A fencer who is being attacked must defend himself with a parry, or make their opponent to miss, in order to take over right-of-way and score a point. Also, a fencer who waits too long while advancing on their opponent gives up right-of-way to their opponent. A touch scored against an opponent who hesitated too long is called an attack in preparation or a stop-hit. Finally, the referee may determine that the two fencers truly attacked each other simultaneously. This simultaneous attack is a kind of tie - no points are awarded, and the fencers are ordered back to en garde by the referee to continue fencing While it may be difficult to follow the referee's calls , the referee will always raise their hand on the side of the fencer for whom they have awarded a point. By watching for these hand signals it is easier for novices to the sport to follow the momentum of a fencing bout without understanding all the nuances of the rules.
Foil actions often occur at ridiculous speed, an electronic scoring system was created to detect hits on a valid target. The foil has a blunt, spring-loaded button at the tip of the blade that must be pressed down with a pressure of 500 grams or better to register a hit. The fencer's uniform features an electrically wired metallic vest called a lamé - hitting the lamé causes the scoring machine to display a colored light on the side of the fencer that scored the touch. A hit off target - on the arms, legs or head, not covered by the lamés, causes the machine to record a white light. As discussed earlier, hits off target temporarilystop the action of the match, but do not result in a point being awarded. Should the scoring machine displays both a colored light and a white light, it means the fencer quickly hit off target and then hit on target before the machine could lock out. Should this occur, the fencer's hit is ruled off target and no touch is awarded. Finally another part of the fencer's equipment is a cable called a body cord. The cable plugs into the foil and runs up the sleeve of the arm and out the back of the uniform connecting it to a retractable reel. This in turn is connected to a scoring machine. Of course, with all this equipment much can go wrong. Therefore, before each bout commences, both fencers ceremoniously test each other's lamés to ensure they are in working order.
Epee: Freestyle Fencing
The epee (pronounced "EPP-pay" - translating to "sword" in French) evolved from the dueling sword, but is heavier, weighing about 27 ounces, with a stiffer, thicker blade and a bigger guard. Like in foil bouts, touches are scored with the point of the blade, but in epee the entire body, head-to-toe, is valid target - like a real life duel. Like the foil, the point of the epee is fixed with a blunt, spring-loaded button. However, the epee tip requires more than 750 grams of pressure to register a touch with the scoring machine. Because the entire body is a valid target area, epee fencers do not have to wear a metallic lamé. There is no concept of "off-target" in epee - all bets are off.
Unlike foil, epee does not use "right-of-way" rules. The fencer who hits his challenger first scores the point. Should the fencers hit each other within 1/25th of a second, both receive a point - this is known as a double touch. The lack of right-of-way combined with a full-body target makes epee a game of careful strategy and patience. Rather than attacking outright, epeeists will spend several minutes probing their opponent's defenses and maneuvering for distance attacking. Another strategy is to stay on the defensive throughout the bout.
Saber: Slash Attack
The saber is the modern variant of the slashing cavalry sword. The major difference between saber and the foil and epee is that saberists can score with the edge of their blade as well as their point. The target area for the saber is the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands. The lower half of the body is not legitimate target. The reason is to simulate a cavalry rider on a horse. In addition, saber employs rules of right-of-way that are very similar to foil with some subtle differences. Like the foil, the saber fencer's uniform has an electrically wired metallic lamé, which covers their valid target area. The fencer's mask is also electrically wired, because the head is a real target. An important difference from foil is that off-target hits are not recorded on the scoring machine, and thus do not halt the fencing action. So if epee is the weapon of patient, defensive strategy, then saber is its direct opposite. The rules of right-of-way in saber favor the fencer who attacks first, therefore a slight graze by the blade against the lamé registers a touch with the scoring machine. This situation makes saber a fast, aggressive game, with fencers rushing their opponent from the moment their referee gives the signal to fence. In fact, a saber match can literally be over in seconds. Fending off the attack of a skilled opponent is nearly impossible,and saber fencers very rarely play defense. However, when forced to do so, they often go all-out using striking tactical combinations in which victory or defeat is determined by mllimeters.
Watching a Fencing Bout:
It helps to focus on one fencer when watching a fencing match. The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a parry, to deflect the opponent's blade, after which the fencer may attempt to score with a riposte (literally "answer" in French). While watching the bout you will begin to notice the fencers rhythmically alternate roles as attacker and defender. Fencers seek to stay out of range of the each others attack. One or the other then may try to close this distance in order to gain the advantage for an attack. You will notice that a fencer will make a false attack - a feint - to probe the reactions and defenses by the opponent. Much of the fencing bout consists of this subterfuge, during which a fencer simultaneously determines their opponent's intentions while distracting them with false information of their own. This deadly "conversation" between the two opponents represents one of the more subtle beauties of the sport Sooner or later one or both fencers will land a legitimate hit. When it happens, the referee stops the bout and determines if a fencer should be awarded a point.