En Garde! Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Olympic Fencing

Getty / Jamie Squire

Fencing is one of the only sports that has been played at every modern Summer Olympics, and it will be back again for the 2021 Games in Tokyo. Because the sport moves fairly quickly, first-time viewers may want to have some basic understanding of the rules and scoring before tuning in. Lucky for you, we’ve pulled together a complete guide, so you can watch the Games like a pro.

What Are the Different Types of Fencing?

There are three types of fencing: épée, foil, and sabre. Each type has its own specific equipment and scoring system. In épée, the entire body is considered “on target,” but the other two types of fencing have designated areas where an athlete has to hit their opponent to score a point. In foil, a competitor must hit their opponent’s lamé, an electrically conductive jacket specially worn and colour-coded to designate the valid areas for a hit. Sabre is similar: fencers can score a hit by touching their opponent’s lamé jacket and cuffs, but touches to their mask also count.

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo will host a whopping 12 fencing events: each of the three disciplines will have both individual and team competitions for both men and women. For the team events, eight nations may qualify teams for each event. All events are direct (or single) elimination format: a loss means you’re out. Each event includes an elimination first round, then quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. The only exception to the “you lose, you’re out” rule is in the semifinal: the losers play the bronze medal match, while the winners compete to see who gets gold and who gets silver.

Fencing is also part of the modern pentathlon, another marquee event at the Olympics that dates back to the Games in ancient Greece.

How Is Fencing Scored?

A “bout” in fencing begins when the referee completes the three-stage declaration. Fencers first salute each other, then when the referee says, “En garde!” they take their positions. The athletes will then confirm their readiness again, and begin sparring when the referee says, “Fence” or “Allez.” Fencers score points through “hits,” or making contact with their foil on their opponent’s body on the scoring area. After a point is awarded, fencers return to their en garde lines, and begin again.

The bout continues until either one fencer reaches the required number of points, or time runs out. According to the official Olympics fencing page, Olympic bouts for individual competition last until one fencer reaches 15 touches or until nine minutes have passed. In team competition, each member of each team faces each member of the opposing team once, adding up to nine individual bouts. A bout lasts three minutes or until one team reaches a score that is a multiple of five. If all nine bouts are played without one team reaching 45 points, then the highest-scoring team wins.

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