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Olympics 101: Fencing
Olympic fencing competition is held at both individual and team levels. The fencer uses three types of weapons: foil, saber or épée. The fencer battles his opponent by trying to score a hit — when his or her weapon's tip makes contact with the opponent's body. The saber is the heaviest of the three weapons and is also scored a little differently than a fencer using the foil or épée. A fencer using the saber can also score a hit when he makes contact with the blade's edge.
In épée, fencers can score hits at the same time — called "double-touching". In foil and saber, only one fencer can score at a time. Each contest consists of three three-minute rounds or lasts until one fencer has scored 15 hits. In team competition, three-member teams compete in nine bouts with a team trying to score a total of 45 hits. Note: women's saber and men's épée will not be part of team competition in the 2012 Summer Games due to the IOC limiting the number of fencing medals rewarded. The disciplines are rotated every Olympiad out of fairness to all fencers.
A fencer's body cord — wiring that connects the weapon to the fencer — registers hits. When a valid hit is made, the bout is stopped while a judge reviews the hit. What constitutes a valid hit depends on the weapon being used. In foil, only a hit on the torso is valid. In saber, a valid target is above the waist, excluding the opponent's hands and back of head. Epée has the largest target, as a hit anywhere on the body is valid.
Why should I care?
In a nutshell, this is sword-fighting. How can you not want to watch? Moreover, the bouts are fast-paced and exciting.
In the 1982 World Championships, Vladimir Smirnov (Soviet Union, foil) was fencing with West Germany's Matthias Behr when Behr's blade broke and pierced Smirnov's mask—the blade went through his eye and into his brain. Smirnov later died from the injury prompting the use of more protective clothing for the sport.
OK, so who should I watch?
Two-time gold medalist American Mariel Zagunis is ranked No. 1 in women's saber and has qualified for her third Olympics. The US women's team also swept the saber individual competition winning gold, silver and bronze medals in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. On the men's side, Italy and France are the teams to beat.
What chance do the Americans have to win?
The women should do well while the men's competition will likely be decided by a European nation. Team USA's roster has not been announced and won't be until early April. Seth Kelsey (épée) is one of the most decorated American men's fencers. He is currently a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.