What would you do if someone came at you with a sharp sword? Your first concern would be to defend — to save yourself. After you avoid being hit, you would try in turn to hit your opponent. This is known as gaining the “right of way.”
Simply stated, the attacker has the right to hit until the defender blocks (parries) the attack or makes the attack miss. The defender then gains the right to hit by returning an offensive thrust or cut. This is called the riposte.
How to Follow the Action
For those new to fencing, it is difficult to follow the lightning speed of the fencers’ actions. To become more comfortable in watching a fencing bout, focus on one fencer. The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a parry, a motion used to deflect the opponent’s blade, after which the defender can make a riposte, an answering attack. Thus, the two adversaries keep changing between offense and defense. Whenever a hit is made, the referee will say “halt” to stop the bout., describe the actions, and decide whether or not to award a touch.
Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other, that is, out of range of the other’s attack. Then, one will try to break this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack to gauge the types of reactions by the opponent that can be deceived in the real attack. As you become accustomed to the speed of the game, the tactics and strategies become more apparent and you will gain a better understanding of the finesse, intelligence, athleticism and fascination of an original Olympic sport.
The early rounds of a competition use the “pool” system. The fencers are divided into groups (pools) with all of the competitors in a pool fencing each other. Each pairing is called a “bout.” The bout begins with the referee saying: “On Guard … Ready?… Fence!” The fencers have 3 minutes of actual fencing time to score five touches if five touches is not reached then the fencer with the most points win the bout.
After the pool rounds the fencers will be seeded into a direct elimination table according to their initial pool win / loss record. In large competitions sometimes a “repechage round ” is used after the number of competitors is reduced to 16 or 32.
Repechage requires a fencer to lose two bouts to be eliminated. The top eight qualifiersfrom the direct elimination with repechage are placed into the final. The final is then conducted by direct elimination. All direct elimination bouts are for 15 points within three 3 minutes periods.