As any decent human being will tell you, one of the manliest and most exciting talents a person can possess is the ability to sword fight. Look at popular culture, where movies like "Star Wars," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "The Lord of the Rings" made billions of dollars due in no small part to their heroic displays of swordsmanship.
Every day across the country, kids with sticks and wild imaginations make themselves pirates, musketeers or knights, and have pretend battles with one another. Sword play has been a romantic and desired skill for thousands of years, and in about two months, thanks to the Olympics, anyone who wants to see the modern-day practitioners of this sport compete at the highest level.
Olympic fencing is fast-paced, exciting, and intensely competitive; in my mind, it is one of the "can't miss" events in the Summer Games.
The Different Weapons
There are three separate weapons that are contested in the Olympic Games: sabre, foil and épée. They differ in three regards: the swords are physically different, the rules of engagement and scoring are different, and the pace at which the weapon is contested is different. The most important details are highlighted below.
The fastest and most athletic of the three weapons. The biggest difference between sabre and the other two disciplines is, in sabre, a competitor can score touches by hitting with the side of the blade, or slashing anywhere from the waste up. Additionally, in sabre, there is a set of rules called "right of way," which determine which competitor receives a point in the event that both hit. In essence, the rule is the attacker (person moving forward) has the right to a touch. In order for the person who is not attacking to receive the touch, he must first stop the attacker's action, either by hitting the attacker's blade or by causing the attacker to swing and miss. Once the defender has successfully stopped the attack, the roles and priority reverse.
These rules, combined with the ease with which a fencer can hit the opponent (due to a hit counting with a slash, not just a poke), create an atmosphere where movement up and down the strip is essential, and the action never stops.
Where sabre is dominated by athleticism, foil is dominated by finesse and point control. Foil operates under a set of "right of way" rules that are similar to sabre. But, unlike sabre, scoring a valid touch is extremely difficult. A sabre fencer can hit with any part of the blade anywhere on his opponent above the waist. A foil fencer can only hit with the tip of his blade, and only hit the torso area (defined as the waist up with the exception of the arms and head). Hitting such a small target area is difficult. When the target area is moving and defended by another blade, it's an impressive feat just to get a light off. As a result, despite the "right of way" rules, foil moves far slower than sabre, as the fencers must take their time to set up an opening where they can score a valid touch.
The "thinking man's weapon," épée moves at the slowest pace of any of the three weapons, and places a premium on intense mental focus. In épée, there is no right of way, meaning if a light goes off (signifying that a fencer has made a valid hit), he receives a touch, regardless of what actions were made beforehand. By extension, if both fencers make valid hits simultaneously, then both fencers receive a point. Additionally, the target area in épée is the whole body; even a shoelace if a fencer managed to pin one against the ground.
Because a fencer cannot rely on rules and regulations to reward him more touches than his opponent, he must carefully plan his actions and only advance within striking distance of his opponent when the opponent is not prepared. Due to the necessity of recording single lights (a touch where the opponent does not also score), épée fencing is filled with faints (false actions meant to trick the opponent) and deliberately paced touches.
Both men and women will compete in all three weapons at the 2012 Olympics. There will be individual events in all three weapons for both genders. Additionally, there will be team events in men's sabre and foil and in women's foil and epee, yielding a total of 10 medal events in the Games.
There will be 32 fencers, seeded according to their FIE (international governing body of the sport of fencing) rankings into a March-madness style direct elimination bracket where the #1-ranked fencer faces the lowest-ranked fencer (who may have a ranking lower than 32, depending on how zonal qualification turns out), the #2-ranked fencer will face the second-lowest ranked person and so on, until the 16th-ranked person faces the 17th. All bouts (fencing terminology for a match) are contested to 15 touches, or three periods of 3 minutes--whichever comes first. There is a fence-off for third place instead of a tie.
Eight teams qualify for the Olympics and are placed into a direct elimination table where the #1-ranked team in the world will face the lowest-ranked qualifying team in the first round. Teams are formed of three fencers from a country, plus one alternate. The three starters face the three opposing starters in an order where each fencer faces each of the opposing team's members once, and fencing is done in intervals of five. This means that the first two fencers on the strip will compete until one of them has reached five touches. Then, the next two fencers take over and adopt their team's score and proceed up to 10 touches. This continues, in five-touch intervals, until one team has reached 45. The first team to reach 45 is victorious.
Americans in Field
The United States is coming off of an ultra-successful 2008 games. The United States swept the podium in individual women's sabre, won the bronze in the women's team sabre, won the silver in women's team foil, and won the silver in the men's team sabre, capping the career of arguably the greatest men's fencer in U.S. history, Keeth Smart. This time around, only one of the three women in sabre is returning (two-time defending gold medalist Mariel Zagunis), Keeth has retired, and the women's foil squad has been completely changed, but the U.S. medal hopes shine as brightly as ever.
First-time Olympian Lee Kiefer is ranked fourth in the world, and the U.S. women's foil team is ranked fifth. Zagunis is still ranked first in the world in women's sabre, and the U.S. women's sabre team currently holds a third place world ranking. On the men's side, first-time Olympians Daryl Homer (only 21 years old) is ranked 12th in the world in men's sabre and Race Imboden (only 19) is ranked fourth in the world in men's foil. Though U.S. fencers not named "Mariel Zagunis" will enter this Olympic tournament as underdogs, many of them have proven throughout the season that they are capable of matching and defeating anyone in the world.
Obviously, this is just a brief overview, and there are many more rules and subtleties that one must learn to truly "get" fencing. But the best way to pick up on those other rules is to watch the sport live and see what it actually looks like. One thing I can promise you is that you will not be disappointed with the show these athletes put on. There are few sports that can match fencing's mix of physical and mental competition; don't miss out on seeing the best go at it on the biggest stage from July 28-Aug. 5.
Peter Souders is a competitive fencer who has competed for over a decade, been ranked as highly as 14th in the United States, qualified for NCAA Championships in four consecutive years representing Boston College, and has been a multiple-time finalist at North American Cups in Fencing.