Gawker's Guide to Sports You're Pretty Sure Don't Exist: Fencing

Welcome to the Gawker Guide to the Obscure Olympic Sports You Have Never Heard Of Or Given A Damn About. Today: Fencing, also known as "the swords one," the 15th-most important Olympic sport.

What the hell is going on here?: Fencing dates back to one of mankind's most ancient practices: beekeepers poking each other with sticks. No, just kidding; modern fencing descends from Renaissance-era European dueling techniques. There are three kinds of Olympic fencing, each named after the type of weapon used, and each with a slightly different set of rules.

In épée, meant to mimic the action of a real duel, the fencer's entire body is a target. Hits must be scored with the tip of the blade and not the sides; if both players hit simultaneously (within 40 milliseconds — the smallest amount of time distinguished by the electronic scoring mechanism), both score a point. The épée itself is the heaviest of the three blades. Because movement in épée is less restricted than with the other two weapons, and because the target is so much large, strategy often involves luring your opponent into making an awkward or off-balance attack from which you can score a point in a counterattack.

The saber, probably descended from cavalry swords, can score points both from the tip of the blade and the sides. Everything above the fencer's waist, excepting his or her hands the back of his or her head, is a target; fencers are subject to restrictions on footwork and "right-of-way" rules that govern who receives the point in the event of a simultaneous hit. Saber is generally the fastest and fiercest of the three. Watch out for the "flunge": a flying leap at the start of play, intended to bypass rules about crossing feet while moving forward, in which the sabeur will attempt to make contact with his or her opponent while airborne.

The most common and well-known weapon is the foil, the rules of which were developed to teach proper dueling technique. As in épée, a foilist can only score points with the tip of his or her weapon. The target area is limited to the torso, and as in saber complicated right-of-way rules, and not the timing of blows, determine points — meaning that matches often feature prolonged low-action periods in which the foilists battle for position before the flurry of an attack.

Cool reference to bring up during broadcast to impress your friends if you have any: "Dude, saber is mad different since 2004, when fencing's international governing body shortened the contact time required to record a touch."

Your prepackaged heartstrings/oh-no-he-didn't storyline:

  • Mariel Zagunis: Only two gold medals have been given out for women's saber — which made its debut as an Olympic event in 2004 — and Zagunis has both, winning her first in Athens as a replacement athlete and following it up in Beijing alonside a team saber bronze. Can Zagunis, who carried the U.S. flag at the Opening Ceremonies, maintain her medal monopoly?
  • Valentina Vezzali: The Italian foilist has seven Olympic medals — including three straight individual golds. If she medals once, she ties Giovanna Trillini as the most-decorated female fencer of all time; if she medals in both individual and team events, she becomes the record-holder — and if she takes the individual gold she becomes one of only three athletes to take home four straight Olympic gold medals in an individual event.
  • Race Imboden: Imboden is a "Brooklyn hipster DJ." What else do you need to know?

Relevant inspirational video:

Sport rating: 8. You have to be pretty strong, really quick, and really coordinated. Think ballet, with scoring, and swords.

Sex rating: 6. There are plenty of good-looking fencers, but I defy you to find a less sexy piece of clothing than a fencing helmet.

Nerd rating: 9. This is highly systematized sword-fighting. It's about two steps removed from role-playing.

Perfect for: Rich bad guys in movies, Spanish courtiers, dashing bandits.

Where you can watch it: NBC isn't televising any men's fencing, but you can catch women's events on MSNBC on Saturday 7/27 and Wednesday 8/1.