How to Watch Olympic Fencing [VIDEOS]

Before you learn about fencing, here’s An Invitation for international Smurk viewers. Thanks!

Wish you could swordfight? Um, OF COURSE you do. With the Olympics coming soon, here’s your chance to watch awesome athletes perform insane feats and look sexy doing it. Huzzah for swordfighting!! Huzzah for the Olympics!! So… how can you tell what the hell is going? Ahh, yes. Here’s a start.

1. Pick your weapon. There are three weapons in the sport of fencing: foil, epee, and sabre. Foil is the best. (Ok ok, not really, we fencers just like to give each other a hard time.) All touches are registered using a simple electrical current made up of too many parts and pieces. No, fencers don’t get electrocuted when they get hit, even if some of them deserve it.

Foil (above video): touches are scored with the point and are subject to the rules of ‘right of way.’ Target area is the torso/trunk. Think of the dude in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: no arms, no legs, but everything else is game, including the sides and back. (No neck or head, either.)

Epee: touches are scored with the point and there is NO ‘right of way.’ Basically, whoever lands their touch first gets the point, and both fencers can score at the same time. Target area is the entire body, including the bottom of the foot. Yes, for reals.

women's epee double touch

Epee double-touch!

Sabre (last video below): touches are scored with the entire length of the blade and are subject to the rules of ‘right of way.’ Target area is everything above the waist, including the front of the neck and head.

Right of way: Highly nuanced and debatable set of rules determining who gets the point. The simplest explanation: If you attack first, you have right of way.

clear demo of right of way photo

Left = attack, right = counterattack. Which sabre fencer looks like more of a badass? Exactly, so he’s attacking*. If he landed it, we’d call this “touch left” in fencing speak.

So which weapon should you watch? Foil. Because foil is the best. Jk…. ;D

2. Start in the middle. The fencers start each new bout (or match*) and each new point from the middle of the strip, which is one way to tell if a point has been scored. If they go back to the middle, someone hit their opponent on-target and got a point for it. Also, if you’re new to fencing, watching from the middle of a bout–which is approx. 2-3 minutes in–is the way to go. There’s more excitement towards the end, both from the competitors and the audience. Oh yea, and first to 15 points wins.*

3. Watch for the lights and hands. Don’t worry about figuring out what’s going on in real-time. Just appreciate the CRAZY athleticism and WICKEDAWESOME dueling, and look at the lights when the action stops.

  • Red or green = ON target, the color just tells you which side.
  • White = OFF target, a.k.a. sadtimesforyou, go practice your point control.
  • If the left light goes off, the left fencer landed a touch.
  • IF ALL ELSE FAILS: watch the referee’s hands. He or she will raise a hand on the same side that gets the point.
referee hand signals when point is awarded

“Touch left” or “touch right.”

3. See some sweet moves. Fencing is fun to watch because it looks freaking RAD. Check it out:

Awesome direct attack*:

great example of a direct attack epee fencing

Luuunngggee!! Epee is the only weapon where the knee is target area.

Parry-riposte (sounds like re-post), or a block + a hit:

good visual example of a parry riposte

Righteous fleche (sounds like ‘flesh’):

chris noyes awesome fleche example

Fencer on the left is in mid-awesome-fleche. Heyyy…I know those guys!

Wicked flunge (yep, as in ‘flying lunge’):

awesome sabre flunge

Flunging only happens in sabre. Fleche-ing only happens in foil and epee. What’s the difference? The feet are not allowed to cross in a flunge.

And, the flick. Or rather, The Flick:

Did you see the touch land? Did figure out that Ota is fleche-ing? Right on, grasshopper, right on 🙂

5. Shout!!!!! When they get sweet touches, fencers celebrate. (My coach likes to joke that if you don’t yell, you don’t get the touch.) There’s a whole lot of built up tension and anticipation between touches, and between bouts for that matter. Letting loose after a point is nearly uncontrollable, and in the best bouts, the audience will participate. Get into it. Yell at your TV!!!! This might be the only cultural overlap between fencing and traditional American sports, so enjoy it. To be honest, shouting is necessary to hold on to the little sanity you have left after deciding you like to fence. This is sport is absolutely maddening to learn, so there seems to be a baseline Crazy Quota amongst those who decide to pursue it. See what I mean?

epic foil fencing shout

Daaaaayum, lady foilist. I think you got it.

FUN FACT: Paralympic fencing requires a ‘butt judge,’ to make sure athletes who have more core muscle control don’t have an unfair advantage over athletes who don’t. Both cheeks must touching the chair at all times!

Teams to watch for in London 2012:

  • FOIL: Women’s: Italy, Russia, Italy, and Italy. Men’s: Italy, Germany, China, France.
  • EPEE: Women’s: Romania, Russia, China, Italy. Men’s: not held in London.
  • SABRE: Women’s: not held in London. Men’s: Russia, Italy, USA.

Individuals to watch for in London 2012:

  • FOIL: Women’s: Valentina Vezzali (ITA), Elisa di Francisca (ITA), Lee Kiefer (USA). Men’s: Andrea Cassara (ITA), Giorgio Avola (ITA), Race Imboden (USA), Alexander Massialis (USA).
  • EPEE: Women’s: Ana Branza (ROM), Britta Heidemann (GER), Li Na (CHI). Men’s: Nikolai Novosjolov (EST), Fabrice Jeannet (FRA), Paolo Pizzo (ITA)
  • SABRE: Women’s: Mariel Zagunis (USA), Sophia Velikaia (RUS), Olga Kharlan (UKR). Men’s: Alda Montano (ITA), Nicolas Limbach (GER), Alexey Yakimenko (RUS)

Think you can hang with the Olympians? See if you can follow this sabre bout:

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*Close enough. These * are for the picky fencers who are making sure I'm 'splaining it right. Back, ye fiends!

Above team/individual projections for London 2012 based on All other info, expertise, and ridiculousness courtesy of Presidio Fencing and the UCSB Fencing team.

For 2012 Olympic Fencing MEDAL RESULTS, check out’s overall medal count and a list of all medals by event.

Images from FencingNet, All Star Activities, Fencing Online, Flickriver, and Global Ticket Market.


An oldie, but a goodie

Originally published in The Daily Nexus, UC Santa Barbara’s official student newspaper, on November 19, 2008.

“Courts Will Right Unjust Laws”

Everywhere I look, people are angry about Prop 8. I’m not entirely sure where it came from. Yes, there is now an amendment to our constitution that defines marriage as only between one man and one woman, but since when did legislation mean the death of an issue? This is the ultimate beauty and frustration of our legislative system: People who disagree with you can also influence the law.

There is no final answer to questions regarding gay marriage, abortion, immigration law, rights of the accused, etc. Do I disagree with changing our state constitution to deny privileges to citizens based on their sexuality? Absolutely. Do I think that people shouting about injustice in the middle of a bike loop is going to change voters’ approval of Prop 8? No way. Why? Election Day happened. Now it’s checks and balances time, when contestations to unfair legislation through appeals to the court system can overturn unjust laws. How freaking cool is that?

Maybe it’s just ’cause I have a nerdy crush on the law, but I think my excitement about law working in favor of traditionally disadvantaged identities – like people who have alternative sexualities – comes from spending the summer reading the thoroughly racist, sexist, xenophobic language in the last 150 years of U.S. Supreme Court rulings and realizing that, holy shit, we’re making progress. How so? Because the California Supreme Court decided on May 16, 2008 that “an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation.” Also, “An individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.” This from the court that will be presiding over the cases challenging Prop 8. It’s pretty damn exciting. Even with judges like this, however, the debate will not be over.

The law does not create social change. It can help, it can coerce and it can even be a firm “shut the hell up” to certain oppressive forms of expression, but legal battles do nothing to solve the struggles of individuals who live in fear of violence because of who they are. By fostering a discussion – not a screaming match – with people who disagree with us, we can hopefully break up the back-and-forth struggle and raise awareness about the real dangers of homophobic thinking.

But erasing stereotypes around sexuality also involves individual choices to stop demonizing the opponent. Not everyone who voted for Prop 8 is an ignorant gay-bashing lunatic, but those are the images we’ve been presented. And those who support gay rights need to be aware of the image being given to the other side. Are we concerned citizens, earnestly trying to promote equality and recognize committed, loving interpersonal relationships? Or have we merely joined the fray, determined-to-be-proven right?

Public assembly in the form of protest has been an integral part of social change in this country, but method matters. The greatest advantage of gathering to protest Prop 8 is the political pressure it puts on the California Supreme Court through sheer numerical representation. By all means, get out there and support the people you know and love who want to get married and are presently not able to do so. But please, keep in mind that the back-and-forth about ‘moral’ issues is not softened by one-liner reactionary slogans. In terms of social injustice, we have come a very long way from where we were, but it is essential to recognize what goes into the process of social change. We must start by listening to those who disagree with us, understanding their position and acknowledging their concerns while respectfully offering our own.