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.
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.”
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.