A fencer requires a significant amount of equipment in addition to the swords. The majority of this is done in the interest of safety, which became a priority following the death of Moscow 1980 foil gold medalist Vladimir Smirnov at the 1982 World Championships, when Matthias Behr’s broken blade punctured the Russian’s brain through his mask.
Masks and the neck bibs that surround them have been subjected to strict inspections since that fatal catastrophe.
All masks must pass a 12kg “punch test,” including FIE-approved versions made of stainless steel, which are required for World Championships and Olympic Games, and non-FIE masks made of carbon steel mesh.
For easier cleaning, most masks have a removable inside liner.
The neck bibs are normally made of Kevlar or another strong synthetic fibre and are designed to withstand 1600 Newtons of stress.
The foil, épée, and sabre are the three fencing blades used in Olympic fencing, each with its own composition, technique, and scoring target areas.
The foil is a thrusting weapon with a maximum weight of 500 grammes. Only the blade’s tip counts against the target area, which is the torso, which is obscured by the lamé.
Although the épée is a thrusting weapon, its maximum weight is 775 grammes. Only the tip of the blade counts this time, but the target area is the entire body, thus no lamé is required.
With a maximum weight of 500 grammes, the sabre is a cutting and thrusting weapon. The entire blade can score the top half of the body, including the face mask and neck bib, which must also be made of conducting material, with the target region being the upper half of the body, covered by the lamé.
The grading system
Due to the difficulty of judging impacts with the naked eye, electrical scoring instruments were first introduced to the épée in 1933, followed by the foil in 1956, and finally the sabre in 1988.
It operates by completing an electric circuit when the blade (just the tip for foil and sabre) makes contact with the target area, triggering a red or green light depending on which athlete lands.
In both attack and defence, a fencer’s quick footwork and balance are critical.
All three disciplines take place on a 14-meter-long, 1.5-meter-wide slope. The opponent receives a point for retreating off the edge of the piste.
The game is played in three three-minute sessions separated by one-minute intervals, with the winner being the first to 15 points. Between each ‘en garde,’ the time stops and the two fencers revert to the ‘en garde’ posture.