Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

The sword is mightier...

With their pristine white clothing and rapier-style swords, the fencers currently competing in the Rio Olympics are cutting a swathe – not literally, thankfully – through their fellow sportswear-clad athletes.

And whilst Team GB are yet to claim a place on the podium, the men’s fencing team are due to raise their swords once more this Friday in a bid to win the Foil Team title.

But what does this mean? How do the swords and disciplines differ in this sophisticated sport – and just how does the most gentlemanly sport at the Summer Olympics actually work?

We spoke to some of Britain’s leading authorities on Fencing to help you make sense of the men in white.

The Three Disciplines

Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“The three disciplines in fencing are Foil, Épée and Sabre,” says Jon Willis, two-time Épée World Cup Winner. “And whilst they differ in the equipment worn, as well as the weapons themselves, the biggest distinguishing factor is the rules that govern the play.”

“Competitive Foil requires an electrified jacket called a ‘Lamé’. The foil lame covers the torso alone, and this is the target area for the discipline. Foils tend to have smaller guards and the blades are generally more flexible.

“The complexities of foil involve lots of ‘Right of Way’ rules that relate to who is able to score a hit during what phase of the fight. For example, if someone begins an engagement, the defender is unable to score a hit until they have successfully parried or dodged the attack. This means that foil is considered a more strategic discipline that requires you to cultivate an opportunity to score a hit; it is high in technical skill as well as physical ability.”

Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“Sabre,” Willis continues, “has its origins in cavalry combat, and the reflection of this is that it is the only discipline that utilises a cutting motion to score a hit. Again, this discipline requires a lamé, but it covers the entire upper body. The head is also a valid target and the mask is therefore also conductive in competition.

“The weapon has a curved guard and a flexible blade – and is widely recognised as the quickest of the three weapons. Fights are fast and furious.”

“And Épée swords are the heaviest of the three weapons and have a larger guard. All of the body is a target in this discipline so no lamé is required. As there are no rules as to when and where on the body you can hit your opponent, Épée is a purer and more realistic representation of traditional duelling.”

The Kit

Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“The kit is classically all white,” says Ben Paul, director of London-based, fourth generation fencing equipment manufacturer Leon Paul. “And its most important aspect, of course, is its protective quality. International level competition equipment must be able to absorb 800 Newtons of force on a single point.

“Blades very rarely break, but it does happen – it is, after all, being used to attack someone with. When a blade breaks it is designed to break clean instead of sharding, nonetheless fencers wear several layers, often a chest protector, which is a high grade plastic shield close to the skin, a plastron, which is a secondary protective layer above the chest protector and beneath the jacket, both of which are 800N resistant.

“Statistically, fencing is one of the safest sports in the world. Even sports you would expect to be very safe, like running, or cycling, have higher injury rates than fencing.”


Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“At the Olympics, all bouts are Direct Elimination,” explains Bob Merry, Secretary of the British Academy of Fencing.  “However, we also sometimes use a pool system, where six or seven fencers all fence each other. For the pool system, bouts are for the first to reach five hits, within a three minute time limit – Direct Elimination fights are the first to reach 15, over a total of nine minutes (3 x three minute segments, with a one minute rest between ‘rounds’). 

“In the case of fencers being tied at the time limit, there will be a further minute of ‘overtime’. One fencer is randomly given priority in case there is no score in this minute – which is unlikely – but the first hit ends the bout. These rules apply principally to Foil and Épée. Sabre is so fast, it rarely reaches even the first rest period at 3 minutes so, instead, Sabreurs have their rest period after eight hits have been scored by one fencer.


Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“Fencing has a long tradition of civility and respect towards one’s opponent,” adds Merry. “Fencers will salute the officials and their opponent before the bout and shake hands, salute officials, opponent and spectators at the end.  During a bout, a fencer will often acknowledge a good hit – touché – which is particularly important in ‘friendly’ bouts within one’s club.

“The sport grew out of gentlemen settling their differences through a duel, with an emphasis on honour, and this attitude and tradition has continued through time. As an individual and highly strategic sport, new fencers also learn the satisfaction of hitting an opponent by out-thinking them. Indeed, fencing is sometimes likened to ‘high speed chess on legs’.”


Fencing: A guide to the Olympics’ most gentlemanly sport

“It can be very physical,” reveals Merry. “Top level fencing requires very strong legs to maintain speed and agility, whilst all the time keeping the legs bent in the ‘en garde’.

“On the other hand,” adds the fencer, “because the mental side is also important, experienced fencers can continue into quite an old age. Age and treachery can beat youth and enthusiasm.”

Further Reading