Changing China

Giant on the move

Beautiful, baffling and bewildering

August 11, 2008

rtr20x4z_comp1.jpgSo maybe my next job isn’t fencing correspondent

I’ll admit that I’m not a professional sports journalist, but I like to think of myself as a decent amateur watcher of sport.

As an American living in London, I’ve even fallen deeply in love with cricket. Fencing, however, foxes me completely.

It all sounds so marvellous:

“Take the romantic, swashbuckling epics of Errol Flynn, add some rules, protective clothing and an electronic scoring system, and you have fencing at the Olympic Games. Two rivals stand opposite each other and feint, lunge, parry and riposte until one scores the required number of hits to win”  — so says the official Beijing Olympics website.

The photographs are even more alluring to me. White-suited warriors stand out sharply from pitch-black backgrounds; metal swords gleam; alien-looking bodies are captured in a state of grace.

In person, the venue oozes with romance — hall lights off, the heavy humid air envelopes all. The fencers emerge, swaddled from top to bottom in electrified suits designed to record every hit. They put on their masks. The referee, wearing a powder-blue jacket, puts them en garde and we get three minutes of violent dance-like movements: thrust, parry, fleche, reprise, riposte and goodness knows what else.

On contact, the electronic lights flash, the contestants let off wild almost inhuman screams, and the referee glances at a slow-motion replay before contorting his body into a an arcane gesture indicating analysis and scoring.

I must admit, on almost every single contact I witnessed I couldn’t figure out who should have been awarded the point — and when I guessed the referee was invariably of an opposite view.

After a while, baffled and confused — but still entranced by the beauty — I left, knowing that at least one more career route is now closed off to me.

Photo: Giovanna Trillini of Italy (L) competes against Nam Hyunhee of South Korea during their women’s individual foil fencing semi-finals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 11, 2008. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini


It would help to know what weapon you were watching to be able to assist your understanding of the sport.

With Foil–the sport where a metal vest not covering the arms is worn–there is the concept of “right-of-way”. This determines point priority for the individual. In short, whoever begins an arm extension first has right-of-way. This can be difficult to gauge at the Olympic level due to the speed and quickness of the competitors who fence in such high-level events. Likewise with Sabre, which also has right-of-way, but is more of a slashing weapon. Sabre bouts progress much more quickly than Foil, partly because the mental game is different, and also because the method of scoring the point with the blade differs (Foil is scored with the tip, and Sabre is scored with the blade’s “edge”).

Epeé fencing, however, throws out right-of-way completely and makes the entire body target area without the use of a metal vest(lamé) or metal jacket. Points may also be simultaneously scored without worring about the aggressive action priority.

The three weapons also have much different mental and physical games. There’s different psychology in each.

Many people who aren’t fencers have difficulty following the action. Observers really need to understand the basic actions and especially the idea of right-of-way–and most important, have a trained eye to be able to distinguish what is happening. This is why it takes a skilled referee to be able to distinguish actions at a high-ranking or Olympic level.

I would encourage you to find a local salle (fencing hall) or club to visit and ask questions of the coaches and fencers. Lower-level competitors and casual fencers are often more easily followed for the novice observer. Also, it helps to have someone who is intimately familiar with the actions that occur to explain to the lay person what exactly is going on. It’s how all fencers learn at the beginning, by watching, asking questions, and trying the actions for themselves.

I’m not personally familiar with the availability of clubs that you might visit in London, but in America, you can search for a club in your area by visiting Alternatively, you may find this list of clubs in Great Britain useful. ncing.asp?PageID=39

Also, a simple overview of the sport, as well as an explanation of right-of-way, may be found here: ew/1272/110/

I hope these things help with your understanding. As in any sport, understanding the rules and actions and WHY they occur is as important to enjoying the sport as much as actually competing in it.

Susan Hazel
South Carolina Division Secretary, USFA


Ah yes, a sport only slightly younger than wooden clubs and throughly European.

Posted by Neal | Report as abusive

Suan – thanks for that comment which was very useful. It was foil so i think it was the right of way concept that confused me completely.

Posted by David Schlesinger | Report as abusive

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