On target

Great news for American fencing today, as American fencers won gold and bronze in women’s sabre and a 7th place in men’s epee (Stories at CNN and the official US Fencing web site, the latter of which is stuck just a bit in Internet 1997). This is big, really: Before today, no American woman had ever won an Olympic medal in fencing; no American had won gold in a hundred years; it has been nearly fifty years since an American placed as high in epee; and no American had won a medal at all since 1984. Until the last few years, the international fencing world was owned primarily by non-US fencers, who start young and have national traditions of competetive fencing, so it’s exciting to see the US team win at this level of competition.

Most casual spectators don’t get fencing, because even its sabre event looks very little like the swashbuckling swordfights of their youth. (So no, it’s not like RenFaire, either. Put away the PVC pipe sword.) Competetive fencing is extremely fast: When a fencer commits to an attack, the point is likely to be decided in a moment, and the action is usually far too quick to see the blade find its target. This speed spurred the development of fancy electrical scoring systems so that when a touch is landed, a buzzer sounds and a signal light is activated. Complicating the physical process of recording touches is “initiative,” a chivalrous sort of system which keeps fencers from simply hacking away at each other—well, most of the time. Initiative means that only one fencer at a time can stage an attack; the other must parry, and can then riposte, or can attempt a counterattack, which means one tries to dodge the original attack while making a second attack. In the case of a counterattack, the fencer with initiative—the one who began the action with a forward movement of the blade—has priority. If the attack lands, even if it lands after the counterattack, the fencer with initiative wins the point.

The system of initiative leads to all sorts of situations. Good fencers can make an attack and guide their blade around the opponent’s attempts to parry, all the while moving forward so as to carry out a single fluid motion. Two good fencers can engage in a whole series of attacks and riposts in just a second or two, which means that the director of the bout has to pay extremely close attention in order to call the action and award the point.

I fenced foil for several years in junior high and high school, and did well enough to compete at a national and a couple of junior national events. After the second or third rounds, which was as far as I ever got, I got to watch the really high-caliber action, and that’s when the real skill was shown off. At that level, touches are scored with tremendous speed; fencers can close distance and make attacks more quickly than most people can follow. At the Olympic level, the action is even quicker—between this speed and the initial complexity of initiative, I can understand how hard it is to televise Olympic fencing competition. Still, once you get the hang of how it works, it’s great fun to watch. Based on the difficulty of getting attention for soccer even after the US women’s world cup win, these medals aren’t likely to generate an instant surge in attention to fencing in the US, but they do put a nice point (ahem) on the progress that the sport has made in the US.

Update: Over at Slate, Robert Weintraub has a couple of comments on Olympic fencing and NBC’s coverage of it.