A new look at an ancient art

Fencing is one of the oldest of all sports, dating as far back as the 13th century in parts of Europe. In fact, it's one of just four sports to be included in every single modern summer Olympic Games, dating back to 1896.

It has its roots in medieval Europe, where swashbucklers used their swords to slay enemies and defend the kingdom. Modern bouts feature competitors in full body wear and mask dueling on a strip (or "piste") that measures 6 feet wide by 44 feet in length. The object is to score points by touching your opponent with your weapon as many times as possible, while avoiding being tagged. Each competitor's suit is attached to an electronic scoring device that registers touches.

While ancient fencing could be quite dangerous — even lethal at times — modern fencing swords are equipped with a 750 gram weighted cap on the end that rarely leaves a mark even after the most emphatic of touches. Typical attire includes a mask and neck guard, a heavy cotton or nylon jacket and pants and shoes. Some fencers will wear an additional chestguard underneath their jacket.

Modern bouts are normally three minutes in length and are a first to 15 touches (five in juniors) format.

There are three basic categories of fencing recognized internationally, each with its own unique equipment and set of rules. The foil uses a lighter sword and scoring is restricted to touches on the opponent's torso. The epee (pronounced EPP-pay, the French word for sword) utilizes a 27-ounce sword and the entire body of an opponent is fair game for a scoring touch. The sabre uses a heavier sword and evolved from duels once fought on horseback. Thus in sabre, only touches above one's waist are counted in scoring.

More than 40 NCAA colleges and universities currently offer varsity fencing programs and more than 100 others include it as a club or intramural sport. Women's sabre was introduced at the Olympic level at the 2004 Games and Beaverton's Mariel Zagunis captured the gold medal — the first American gold in any fencing event in 100 years. Zagunis, along with teammates Sada Jacobson and Keeth Smart, will lead a strong U.S. team at the Beijing Games next month.

The national governing body is the United States Fencing Association (www.usfencing.org) and the worldwide governing body is the International Fencing Federation, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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