Fencing is a modern sport with ancient roots. The origins of fencing may be traced to the sword-fights of ancient Egypt that are known to have been held as early as 3000 BC. Fencing developed as a distinct form of competition in Europe through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as dueling became increasingly subject to criminal prosecution. The thin, specially manufactured dueling swords became the preferred fencing instrument during this time. By 1900, three forms of fencing had evolved as distinct competitions: épée, foil, and sabre.
Fencing was introduced into the Olympic Games of 1900 as a men's sport. Women's fencing became an Olympic competition through the inaugural women's foil event in the 1924 Games. International fencing is governed by the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime, or FIE, with member national governing bodies in most countries of the world. In addition to Olympic competition, the FIE sanctions an annual world championship in all three fencing disciplines, both for individual competitors and as a team competition. Fencing clubs are relatively common in Europe; in North America, fencing is a sport supported by larger universities and by various military units.
The foil is the fundamental fencing instrument. Constructed of polished steel, the foil is a maximum of 42 in (110 cm) in length, including the protective guard, with the tip topped with a button-shaped device to reduce the risk of injury. The tip of the foil is electrified, as is the protective equipment worn by the fencer, to determine when the fencer has registered a scoring strike against the opponent. The fencer wears other extensive protective equipment, including a full mask covering the face and head of the athlete, full protection for the torso and groin, as well as breeches and gloves.
All fencing competitions involve two athletes in combat, which takes place on an a defined competitive area known as the piste. The fencers must face one another across the piste, which is marked by two
All three types of fencing begin with the two competitors coming to an "on guard" position, where they are sufficiently far apart that they cannot make contact against their opponent with their weapon. Upon the command of "play" being given by the referee, the bout begins. The bout ends when one fencer accumulates the prescribed number of hits (a figure that varies depending on the level of competition), or at the end of a fixed time for the bout (typically nine minutes). Each successful contact with the defined target area of the body of the opponent is scored as a hit.
In épée, the only legal means to score is with the point of the weapon only making contact with any part of the opponent's body and clothing. In all disciplines, the fencer uses the weapon to both thrust towards the opponent, and to parry, which is the turning aside of an attack through the use of the weapon to block the blow. There are intricate rules in all three competitions as to what maneuvers constitute a proper defensive parry.
Successful fencing requires a combination of speed, balance, manual dexterity, and strategy. At the club level, fencing is often a mixed, male and female competition, due to the premium placed on quickness and hand-eye coordination, as opposed to muscular power. Most fencing conditioning programs emphasize a combination of aerobic and anaerobic components; excess weight is a significant detriment to effective fencing, as such a condition will detract from the speed of the athlete. Specific attention is paid to the development and enhancement of the athlete's footwork, as fencing requires very fast and explosive movements to occur in a relatively small space upon the piste. Fencing also places a premium on the ability of the athlete to move fluidly, and stretching and flexibility in the musculoskeletal system is an essential aspect to fencing fitness.
The fencing movements implemented in attacks, counter attacks, and the assumption of defensive positions are a combination of decisive physical movement and tactical experience. The mental aspect of fencing is sufficiently important that it is common for fencers to be successful in the sport into their 40s and beyond. The injury rate in fencing, given the protective equipment worn by all competitors, tends to be relatively low in comparison to other sports.