Competition – Formats, Rules, and Oddities

For anyone who has been watching the Olympic fencing events over the last couple of days, if you’re not already familiar with fencing, you may have found it rather confusing. I thought that this would be a good time to talk about tournament formats and some of the rules. This might be useful to urban fantasy authors if you’d like to sneak a fencing tournament into your story. Even if you’re writing an alternate world fantasy, elements of the tournament format could be extended to your own world’s version of a tournament or duel.

There are so many details and rules – the ninja is confused.

First off, the Olympics are different than any other fencing event. I’ll mention the typical format used in most local, regional, and national tournaments in America and then I’ll go over some of the exceptions (Olympics, collegiate, team events).

Each tournament is categorized by weapon, age group, and skill level. In a smaller event, the women and men will compete together. If the event is larger, separate men’s and women’s events will be held. Most fencers are awarded letter ratings to indicate their skill level. These ratings run from A to E (also U = unrated) and are earned by winning or placing highly in competition. An “Open” event is open to all skill levels. Some tournaments are limited to lower rated fencers, others are restricted to higher rated fencers. For example, if a tournament is listed as a “D and under” that means that any fencer with a D, E, or U rating is eligible to compete.

For national events and some regional tournaments, the terminology can be different. A Division III event is a “D and under” while a Division II event is a “C and under”. There is little practical difference between calling a tournament a “D and under” versus a Division III event. The same fencers can compete. At the national Division II and III events, the ratings that are awarded to the winners are strictly defined, while for a local Division II or III event, the number and level of ratings awarded will be determined by how many fencers competed and where the top rated fencers in the tournament finished.

For tournaments restricted to higher rated fencers, there is Division I. This event is only for A, B, and C fencers. I suppose that someone could hold an event for only A’s or only A and B’s, but I have not seen this done.

A fencer’s rating also has a year. So one fencer could be a B11, meaning that she earned her B rating in 2011. If she re-earns that B rating the following year, it becomes a B12. After four years have passed without re-earning a rating, it drops to the next lowest rating.

Fencers can also earn points. There are National and International points – these are what determine the national rankings and teams and are earned at Division I events or World Cups. There are also regional (ROC) points – these are used to determine who qualifies for some of the events at National Championships. The point system becomes very complicated and more information can be found here.

As far as age groups go, there are Youth events and Veterans events. These are further subdivided into brackets like U19 (under 19) and V50 (Veterans 50+).

For your average fencing tournament, there are two rounds. In the first round, the total number of fencers are divided into small groups called pools (usually 5-7 fencers in each). Each fencer in a pool fences each other fencer in that pool. Bouts are fenced until 5 points. When all of the pools have been completed, the results are lumped together and the fencers are seeded into the second round. In some national events, only 80% of the fencers make the cut to the second round.

This second round is called direct elimination. Most fencers will say something like, “I just fenced DE’s,” or, “This is my second DE bout.” In this part, the bouts are fenced to 15 points. Once you lose, you’re eliminated from the competition (but of course, there are some exceptions. I’m not getting into that here). There is also a time limit to the bouts. A DE bout consists of three 3-minute periods with a one minute break between each one. Even if there is time remaining, the bout is over once 15 points is reached. In sabre, each point is over so fast that it would be exceptional for the first 3-minute period to even expire. In sabre, once one of the competitors reaches 8 points, there is a one minute break.

There are penalties that can be doled out by the referee. A fencer can receive a yellow card, red card, or black card. Yellow cards are for minor infractions and the first one has no effect on the score. A second yellow card penalty becomes a red card and the opposing fencer receives one point. For more serious infractions, a red card can be given right away. In egregious cases of misconduct the referee can give a fencer (or coach or onlooker) a black card. This means that the fencer is thrown out of the competition, or sometimes the building. There is a list of the type of actions that will result in each level of penalty here.

If the speed of the Olympic fencing causes your eyes to cross, don’t worry – there is instant replay! Most of the online coverage shows each touch in slow motion, although there isn’t any commentary beside the referee’s hand signals or final call. Each fencer can request two video reviews of a point in each bout. The fencer draws a rectangle in the air with her index fingers to indicate that she would like the touch reviewed. If the call is upheld, the fencer uses up one of her video challenges. If the referee changes his call, the fencer does not lose one of her video challenges. The video review process is partially used in the national level events (Division I – III) in America, but may be restricted to one strip or the final bouts of an event.

Some fencers may use a variety of delaying tactics during their bouts. There are some situations where a fencer may request a video review even if he knows that the referee was correct. If the bout is nearly over and the fencer still has two video challenges, he may wish to use the time of the review process to catch his breath, stretch a tense muscle, or rethink his strategy. Many other delaying tactics exist and I have seen about half a dozen already in the Olympic coverage. A fencer can stop to re-tie her shoe, fiddle with her weapon, change her weapon, change her glove, remove her mask to wipe sweat from her eyes or to fix her hair, walk to the end of the strip and back, or fuss about a potential injury. The referee will call the fencers back en garde but if the athlete already has untied her shoe or walked down the strip, it will take a few more seconds to be back on the line. If the fencer is not making some movement toward resuming the bout, she can be penalized. If a fencer claims to be really injured, a trainer is called to the strip. If the trainer thinks that the fencer was not injured, there is a penalty. If the trainer concurs on the injury, the fencer has ten minutes to deal with it and to decide if she can return to fencing.

There is another odd thing that you may notice if you watch a few bouts. Sometimes one fencer will hold up an index finger after a touch. This is an acknowledgement that the opponent scored. It is used more often in practice when there is not a referee or when the fencers are being courteous and are helping out a fellow fencer that is trying his best to make the calls. In competition, it is more like saying, “Touche.”

The ninja acknowledges a touch.

International fencing competitions are refereed in French. Tournaments in the United States are refereed in English, although you may sometimes hear French. The referee will say things like, “On guard,” followed by, “Ready,” a little pause, then, “Fence.” In French this is, “En garde. Prêt, aller.”

Now for the Olympic stuff. There is no pool round in the Olympics. All of the fencers are just seeded into the DE round. Also – in most other fencing tournaments, there are two third place winners. In the Olympics, the two fencers that lose in the semi-finals have to fence off for third. There can only be one bronze medal.

At some competitions, there are also team events. The team is made up of three fencers and one alternate. Each (of the three) fencers fences each one of the opposing team in a set rotation. The scoring from one bout to the next is cumulative. In the first match up, the bout is over when one side reaches 5. In the second bout they start with the score from the first bout (let’s say it was 5-3), but then the bout runs until one side reaches 10. So from that 5-3 bout, if the leading team reaches 10 and the other team doesn’t score much, you could have a score like 10-4 at that point. Or, if the trailing team rallies, you might end up with a score of 7-10. As the match continues, you could have scores that stay close (35-33) or one team could stay clearly ahead (40-22). The last bout will bring the score up to 45 for the winning team.

In the Olympics, there are also team events, but not every possible event (out of men’s/women’s foil/epee/sabre) is fenced every year. Historically women only fenced foil, but in more recent years the epee and sabre events were added to Olympic competition for women. To accommodate the extra numbers of fencers, only two men’s and two women’s team events are held at each Olympics. This year the men’s epee and women’s sabre team events will be left out.

There are other formats for some local tournaments or collegiate events. The NCAA team events are scored a bit differently.

So hopefully that provides a little more information about tournaments to anyone that is interested. Coming up next time – what types of injuries are common among fencers?

If you would like to watch any of the individual Olympic fencing events, there’s not much time left. Wednesday 8/1 is the final day with women’s sabre and men’s epee. The team events begin on 8/2.

And if all this talk about fencing makes you want to try some yourself, check out this video that explains the basic footwork.


The Most Important Thing

What makes one fencer better than another?

Is it the speed of their blade or the strength of their attack? What about hours of practice and drills? Is it their strategy and mental toughness?

The answer to all of these questions is: sometimes. But in all of fencing, there is one aspect of the sport that can always override these other factors. What is this nebulous factor that allows the experienced fencer to out-maneuver the novice? It lets the skilled fencer execute their blade work and attacks against a weaker opponent. It makes the strategy possible.

What is this amazing thing? It is the ability to judge the proper distance and to manipulate that distance. By extension, this also relates to footwork and athleticism, but even the most fit fencer’s game will falter if their sense of distance is off.

Please bear with my ninja artwork.

In the movies, sword fights are flashy and dramatic. The focus is on large sweeping moves and the clash of metal as multiple attacks and parries are exchanged. In a real fencing bout, most actions are simple and blade actions are brief exchanges. Especially in sabre, it is MUCH easier to hit your opponent than it is to block the attack. This blocking action is called a parry. If you parry your opponent’s attack and then return the attack, that is called a riposte.

A fencing point is over quickly because it does not take very long for someone (or both fencers) to get hit. The referee will call a halt and will award a point to one fencer, neither fencer, or both fencers (only in epee). Whether or not a particular hit translates into a point in the match is a separate discussion.

So how does distance become important to this? In a simple attack (one fencer advances, the other runs away), the attacker must close the distance and strike the target area. If the attacker judges the distance correctly, he will score the point. If the defender is a better judge of distance and can manipulate that distance, he can trick the attacker into falling short. Once the attacker has missed, he loses the advantage and the defender can take over. Or even worse, the attacker may be off balance and will be unable to defend after missing his attack.

At the next level of complexity, the defender is no longer going to let the attacker simply hit her. She is going to take a parry (block). In order to do this, she must do two things. First she must pay close attention to her distance. If she fails to keep enough distance from the attacker, she will not have time to see where the attacker’s strike is aimed. In this case, she may still try to parry, but it is more risky and can become a guessing game. If the defender can use the distance properly, she may even throw out feints or stutter her footwork to entice the attack. As a result, the attacker may decide (wrongly) that she has the proper distance and timing to finish her attack. The second part of the parry is the physical movement of the blade to block the attack. If the defender has judged the distance correctly, this is the easy part.

So if the defender just scored that last point, what will the attacker do if he wants to still make an attack? He might think that the defender will try the same move again. If it worked once, why not twice? The attacker does not want to lose this next point, so he must adjust his strategy. Let’s say that the attacker starts out the same way and chases the defender. The attacker thinks that the defender will try the same parry-riposte strategy. This time when the defender makes those feints and stutters his footwork, the attacker ignores it. The attacker is patient and advances more smoothly. When he sees the defender hesitate to attempt those feints again, he takes a larger step and finishes his attack with a quick lunge. The defender has overcommitted and does not have enough distance (which translates to time) to see where to parry. Unless he makes a lucky guess and can get his blade there in time, the defender is struck.

This can become much more complicated and is part of the reason why fencing has been called physical chess.

The use of distance by itself can be best demonstrated by watching an experienced fencer bout against a very new fencer. When someone first starts fencing, they can be a dangerous opponent. This new fencer does not attack smoothly, moves unpredictably, parries strangely, and does not react to feints or other body language. She is so awkward that it can make it tough for another fencer to figure out what to do against her. The best strategy for me when bouting against someone very new is to just keep my distance. I will stay away until the new fencer makes enough of a mistake that the way is clear for me to attack. If I choose to attack, I make sure that I’m extra patient. I will advance, but I’ll stay just far enough away that the new fencer cannot reach me with any surprise attacks (which would not necessarily make sense to do when retreating, but a new fencer will do them anyway). Once the new fencer is off balance or stops moving her feet I will close the distance and finish my attack.

I would venture to say that distance is critically important in many other martial arts. However, this may be a difficult detail to translate into your writing. It will be tough to describe and it may be tedious to read. I think the take home messages should be: 1) a real sword fight will be over fast, 2) it is more risky to parry with the blade than to just jump back, 3) inexperienced fencers can occasionally do something bizarre that will catch an experienced fencer by surprise.

Oh, and the London Olympics start July 27th. Fencing at this level can be tough to follow, but if you’d like to give it a try, here is a guide that might help. The fencing events begin on July 28th.

This is NBC’s Olympic fencing page.

And here is the schedule for the online broadcasts of fencing.

Does anyone out there practice a different sport or martial art? Is distance important to your sport? Or are there other things that play a bigger role in the game?

What’s In That Bag?

This week, I thought that I’d step back from the official fencing equipment and play a fun little game. It’s called: What’s In That Bag?

Here’s the idea. Suppose you are writing about a character that fences, knows fencers, stumbles upon a fencing tournament, or even finds a closet of old fencing equipment. I’ve mentioned the types of protective equipment and the weapons that would be used. I’ll get to scoring boxes, reels, and strips later. But what other interesting tools and equipment might be found alongside fencing gear? Let’s go take a look.

First off, there are several types of fencing bags. I’ve been through three or four different ones. The bag that I own now is a bit of an unusual design, but it works for me. Most bags are of two types: a teardrop shaped bag carried on a single strap over the shoulder, or a wheelie-bag which is usually a larger rectangular bag with wheels on one end. For routine practice, I carry a separate duffel bag for the sweaty stuff.

Plastic jump rope.

On an average day, I only carry those pieces of equipment that I need for practice. That means that I probably have one mask and an older lame. I don’t routinely use my newest mask and lame in practice because the conductive material will wear out after too much abuse, and these are expensive pieces of equipment. Eventually all kinds of detritus finds its way into the pockets and recesses of my bag. Those are the corners that I’m going to explore today and here’s what I found:

1) A jump rope – I use this to keep my heart rate up between bouts on days at practice when I’m feeling extra-motivated. If your characters have a situation that requires a rope, a stash of fencing equipment might be reasonable place to find at least a short one. I also found a pair of extra shoe laces in a side pocket of my bag – another item that might be useful as part of a trap, magic device, or hey, just to use as shoe laces.

Extra shoe laces, a frighteningly old energy bar, and a roll of tape.

2) A water bottle and an old energy bar – The water bottle in my bag today was empty, but sometimes I leave a partially full one in there. Perhaps your character needs water. Or perhaps your wizard needs a container for a potion. Or a poison. The energy bar may have been in that side pocket for years. I’m not going to eat it, but a desperately hungry character might.

3) Vise-grips – This is the primary tool that I use to assemble a sabre. The pommel needs to be tightened a little more than I can do by hand. Many foil and epee fencers use pistol grips which require a hex tool to tighten. A larger pair of Vise-grips would probably be able to hurt an enemy if your character used it like a club.


4) Electrical parts – This consists of extra pieces of wire from defunct body cords, electrical tape, soldering iron, and an Ohm meter. I no longer carry the soldering iron or Ohm meter, but when I had the patience to repair body cords, they were useful. If you’re writing a science fiction story, there could be numerous uses for these items.

Two rolls of foam underwrap, Biofreeze, and an elastic knee support.

5) Medical supplies – Today I found a roll of foam underwrap, a few Biofreeze packets, and an elastic knee support in my bag. I’ve never used the Biofreeze. I think it was a free sample and claims to be a pain-relieving gel. At other times, I have carried those instant ice packs and various other supports and braces. I think that I own every type of ankle support in existence. I don’t think that it would be unreasonable for your characters to find bandaging materials or simple pain-relieving medications (Advil, Aleve) among fencing equipment.

6) USFA Card – This is something that currently lives in my wallet, but it used to be in my fencing bag. It also used to be a flimsy piece of paper, but now it is a hard plastic card that could probably be used to shimmy open an easy door lock.

7) The rest of it – I also discovered a notification that TSA had searched my bag at the airport, assorted pieces of plastic and packaging, and spare and broken pieces of fencing equipment. Maybe a survivalist could figure out some practical uses for these things. At least the packaging material would burn. I have hung a banner using broken sabre blades as supports.

So for any fencers out there, is there a non-equipment item that you absolutely MUST have in your fencing bag that is not listed here? Does anyone carry something odd for luck?

If you missed my last post, follow the link in the next older post to see the interview with two-time Olympic gold-medalist Mariel Zagunis. AND today’s goodie: Here’s another link to an interview with a member of the US Olympic Fencing Team, Tim Morehouse.

For the next few months, I should be back to posting every 2 weeks. Next time – THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in fencing, and likely other martial arts and combat sports.

The Greatest Olympic Athlete You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

As the London Olympic Games approach, I thought I would post some shorter links or articles about Olympic fencing and fencers here.

Mariel Zagunis will be competing in London in her third Olympic games in women’s sabre. She has won two previous Olympic gold medals and multiple World Cup and World Championship events. This article is a nicely written introduction to her road to the games.

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