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Summer Olympics Preview: A Brief History of Fencing

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The sport of fencing is one of only four sports to be in every single modern Olympic Games, beginning in 1896, but that doesn't mean that nothing has changed in 116 years. There have been new events, new scoring technology, and expansion of the sport.

Below I will detail some of the major changes to the Olympic program since 1896, and some of the most important American competitors in the sport's history.

The Introduction of the Men's Events

Though today there are three weapons contested in both genders, it has not always been that way in the Olympic Games. In the first modern Games in 1896, only men's sabre and foil were contested. Épée was added for the men in 1900. However, at this point in time, the rules of fencing were not standardized world wide, leading to some countries refusing to compete in fencing in the 1912 Games. The FIE (Fédération Internationale d'Escrime) was founded in 1913 to standardize the rulebook and resolve this issue.

Women Join the Show

Though the men's weapons were established in the Olympic Games quickly, the corresponding women's events took much longer to gain a spot in the Games. Women's foil was the first event added to the Games in 1924, and continued to be the only women's event until 1996, when épée was added. Women's sabre was not included until 2004.

New Scoring Equipment is Introduced

Electronic scoring equipment and instant replay are now standard in the world of Olympic fencing, but once upon a time a collection of judges had to vote on each touch to determine if they believed a valid hit had been scored. Electronic scoring equipment was introduced for épée in 1936, for foil in 1956, and for sabre in 1992.

Historically Important American Fencers


Albertson Van Zo Post - The first American to medal in the Olympics in the sport of fencing, he collected five medals at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, including two gold medals.

Joseph Levis - One of the greatest fencers in American history, he won the individual silver medal in men's foil and the bronze in the team competition in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He also competed in the 1928 and 1936 Olympic Games.

Albert Axelrod - Won the bronze medal in individual foil in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

George Calnan - Naval officer who competed in the 1924, 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games in épée. He won an individual bronze in épée in 1928, and team bronze in foil and épée in 1932.

William Grebe - American sabre fencer who won the silver medal in the 1904 Olympic games.

Peter Westbrook - Sabre fencer who was a member of five Olympic teams and a bronze medalist in the 1984 Olympic Games.

Keeth Smart - Though never an individual medalist, Keeth is considered by many to be the greatest American sabre fencer in history. He was the first American to earn a #1 world ranking, and led the underdog U.S. sabre squad to a silver medal in the 2008 Olympic Games.


Emily Cross/Hanna Thompson/Erinn Smart - This trio of women's foil fencers shocked the fencing world and won the team silver in the 2008 Olympic Games.

Rebecca Ward - The #1-ranked sabre fencer in the world in 2007, Ward won the individual and team bronze medals in the 2008 Olympic Games.

Sada Jacobson - Became only the second U.S. fencer to achieve a world #1 ranking when she rose to that position in 2004, only a few weeks after Keeth Smart. Won the bronze medal in individual sabre in 2004, the silver in individual sabre in 2008, and the team bronze in 2008.

Mariel Zagunis - The most accomplished American fencer in history, Zagunis won the gold medal in individual women's sabre in the 2004 and 2008 Games, and is currently ranked #1 in the world heading in to the 2012 Olympic Games. She is also a two-time individual World Champion (aside from the Olympics), winning those titles in 2009 and 2010. She also won a bronze medal in the team event in 2008.

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.


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