En garde! Fencing might not be the most high-profile sport at the Olympics, but with Team GB’s Marcus Mepstead determined to compete for a medal, this could be the year that all changes.
But what are the rules of fencing? If you’re one of the millions of fans at home desperate to make the most of the Olympics, we’re on hand to help you make sense of it all.
RadioTimes.com brings you up to speed with everything you need to know about fencing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo in the summer of 2021.
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When is fencing at the Olympics?
Fencing runs between Saturday 24th July until Sunday 1st August.
Medal finals will take place every single day throughout the fencing contests so don’t miss a moment!
Check out our guide on how to watch Olympics 2020 or see Olympics on TV today for more details, timings, and exclusive expert analysis from some of the biggest names in world sport over the coming weeks.
Sir Chris Hoy, Beth Tweddle, Rebecca Adlington, Matthew Pinsent and Dame Jess Ennis-Hill are among the stars we have to being their esteemed opinions, so don’t miss what they have to say.
What are the three fencing disciplines?
The three “disciplines” of fencing are essentially three different swords that fencers use in matches, each of which has different rules as to their use.
The Foil looks like a basic rapier with a small hilt and a flexible blade. In this discipline, fencers must use the tip of the sword to hit the torso, back or groin of their opponent, with any hits on the head (mask) or limbs not counting.
This is easily measured by the electrified jacket (called a Lamé) that covers the relevant areas, and which registers a “point” when hit by an electrified sword.
If a hit is made with the tip of the foil outside the target area, it stops the bout – unless the failed hit is with the side of the blade which, while not counting towards points, doesn’t stop the action.
Notably, there are various specific rules governing the use of foil not shared by every other discipline. Most importantly, foil involves complicated “right of way” rules that mean if an opponent “launches” an attack you have to counter or dodge it before you can launch your own – if you just held the sword out, even if you did land a hit, it wouldn’t count.
This makes it one of the most strategic disciplines, and it’s the most popular overall.
The Sabre has similar but distinct rules of use. A long, thin blade with a curved hilt over the hand, the sabre has the familiar look of a cavalry weapon, which is what this discipline evolved from.
The sabre is the only sword to allow a cutting motion – i.e. the use of the blade itself, rather than just the tip – to score a hit.
In sabre, the entire upper body from the waist up including the head (helmet) is a target area, with contestants wearing a different lamé that covers the chest and arms (and using a special helmet) to help measure those hits.
As with foil, some “right of way” rules apply, for example if two opponents hit each other simultaneously.
Last but not least, the Epée – a heavier sword with a larger hilt and an inflexible blade – can score a point anywhere on the body, meaning that no Lamé is necessary.
There are no rules as to when and where on the body you can hit with an epée, making it one of the more aggressive and fast-paced versions of the sport.
There are also no right of way rules in epée, meaning opponents can both score simultaneously.
What are the rules for fencing at the Olympics?
Generally speaking, the Olympic matches are contested over three five-minute rounds (or “bouts”).
The match goes to whoever is the first to 15 points, or whoever has the most points after three rounds if that number isn’t reached. As noted, points are registered with the electrified swords used in Olympic fencing, with a light and audible “beep” heard with every scored point or missed target.
Barring the specific rules above, the basic aim of fencing is simple – score as many hits on your opponent as possible with your weapon, and avoid being hit yourself.
There is a complex array of moves, positions and techniques used by fencers to achieve this (as with any martial art), many of which have to be learned over a number of years.
Fencers contest on a “piste” which is usually 46 feet long and around six feet wide. In the centre sits a line with about six feet either side before another line that marks the “on guard” (starting) position. If a fencer is pushed off the piste by the advance of their opponent, that opponent gains a point.
Fencers play from the “en garde” or on guard stance, which means standing side-on (limiting the amount of body for an opponent to hit) with one foot pointed forward.
From this position the most traditional attack is a “lunge”, where the fencer lifts their front leg, moves forward and extends their sword arm while maintaining the position of their back foot by straightening the leg.
Competitors wear a fencing jacket (or tunic) and pads, a padded glove (or gauntlet) for the weapon hand and the iconic mesh helmet, which is strong enough to repel the sword blades but allows fencers to see.
Fencers must salute each other by raising their swords to their helmets at the beginning and end of each bout, with a potential points penalty or disqualification if they do not. The match is presided over by a referee.
Fencers may also be issued with penalty cards for poor or unsportsmanlike behaviour, such as making bodily contact, moving equipment or attempting to alter results.
A yellow card is a warning, a red card means a point is given to their opponent, and a black card could mean disqualification from this and future tournaments for serious offences (including doping or refusing to salute).
Which Team GB athletes will compete in Olympic fencing?
Marcus Mepstead will represent Great Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, his second after the 2016 Rio Olympics (where his team achieved sixth place). Mepstead is currently ranked number one for foil in the UK and number 14 worldwide.
He has previously beaten the world number one at the 2019 World Championships, landing an individual silver medal and beating top fencers from around the world.
Team GB Chef de Mission for Tokyo 2020, Mark England, commented: “I would like to congratulate Marcus on this outstanding achievement, and we are delighted to once again welcome him onto the team.
“Marcus’ determination and consistency has been incredible to watch over recent years, and this has ensured that Team GB can be represented in fencing at another Olympic Games – something Marcus should be very proud of. Marcus brings with him great experience and fantastic talent and we know that watching him perform in Tokyo will be nothing but exciting.”
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