Fencing began as a way to learn techniques for using swords in combat, and is known to have been practiced well before the birth of Christ. The earliest depiction of a fencing bout has been found in the temple of Medinet‐Habu, in Luxor, Egypt, and dates back to around 1190 BCE. It shows wrestling and fencing being contested at a celebration of an Egyptian military victory. As a sport, fencing began in either the 14th or 15th century, and both Italy and Germany lay claims to the origins of the sport. In 1570, Henri Saint-Didier, of France, gave names to fencing’s major movements and most of that nomenclature remains.
Until the 17th century, the fencing weapons were large and unwieldy like the combat weapons. However, the dueling sword evolved into the épée, and the cutlass into the sabre. The foil was originally a practice weapon for combat and became popular as a sporting event in the late 19th century.
The foil is a light, quadrangular tapering blade, in which only hits made with the blade point on the opponent’s torso count. The épée, developed from the dueling weapons of European noblemen, is the same length as the foil, but is heavier and has a triangular blade and a larger handguard. Hits must also be made with the tip of the blade but can be scored over the opponent’s entire body. The sabre has a flat, rectangular blade and owes its origins to the 18th century cavalry sabre. Hits may be scored with the tip of the blade, with its front edge, or with the last one-third of its back edge. The target area is from the bend of the hips up, including the head and arms.
Fencing was first contested at the 1896 Olympics and is one of the few sports to have been contested at every modern Olympic Games. At the 1896 and 1900 Olympic Games, it was the only sport at which professionals, specifically fencing masters, or teachers, were allowed to compete. Women’s fencing first appeared in the Olympics in 1924. Today, men compete in the Olympics with the aforementioned three types of swords – the foil, the épée, and the sabre – in both team and individual events, thus six events in all. Women competed only in foil at the Olympics, until 1996, when women’s épée was added; women’s sabre was added in 2004. Electronic scoring has been used at the Olympics for épée since 1936, for foil since 1956, and for sabre since 1992.
Fencing is governed worldwide by the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (FIE), which was formed on 29 November 1913, in Paris, with eight founding members: Belgium, Bohemia, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway. As of 2022, FIE has 154 member nations affiliated.
Fencing has been dominated at the Olympics by Italy, France, and Hungary. Italian Edoardo Mangiarotti has won the most Olympic fencing medals, with 13, followed by Hungarian Aladár Gerevich, with 10. Gerevich leads the gold medal count, with seven, followed by compatriots Pál Kovács and Rudolf Kárpáti, and Italians Mangiarotti and Nedo Nadi, all with six golds. Valentina Vezzali has the best performance in women’s events, with nine medals and six golds, followed by Italian compatriot Giovanna Trillini, with eight medals and four golds.
Presidents of the Fédération internationale d’escrime:
- Albert Feyerik (BEL, 1913-1921)
- André Maginot (FRA, 1921-1924)
- George van Rossem (NED, 1925-1928)
- Eugène Empeyta (SUI, 1929-1932)
- Paul Anspach (BEL, 1933-1948)
- Jacques Coutrot (FRA, 1949-1952)
- Giuseppe Mazzini (ITA, 1953-1956)
- Pierre Ferri (FRA, 1957-1960)
- Miguel de Capriles (USA, 1961-1964)
- Pierre Ferri (FRA, 1965-1980)
- Giancarlo Brusati (ITA, 1981-1984)
- Rolland Boitelle (FRA, 1984-1992)
- René Roch (FRA, 1993-2008)
- Alisher Usmanov (RUS, 2008-present)