Despite how dangerous looking people poking at one another with swords looks, modern fencing is actually one of the safest sports in the Olympics.
A well known analysis shown below from all sports’ injury rates throughout the 2008 Olympics shows that fencing had one of the lowest rates of injury.
You might be surprised to see what sports had higher injury rates than fencing:
Zooming in a bit to look at the results near the bottom, we can see that fencing is even safer than table tennis, badminton, and swimming.
At this point it’s starting to look almost boring!
On top of that, it’s important to point out that these injuries aren’t as a result of blows with swords – Injuries from fencing are pretty much in line with the kinds of injuries you get playing tennis or squash these days.
A twisted ankle, tripping and falling over and hitting your head, slipping and pulling a muscle in your leg.
These kinds of injuries, while not minor, are not generally life threatening.
Fencing is essentially a non-contact sport, much like the racket sports mentioned above, but if the racket sports were wearing head to toe body protection.
When you look at it from this perspective, it makes sense that the sport with one of the highest amounts of safety and protective equipment in the Olympic games has one of the lowest total injury levels.
This excellent safety record wasn’t always the case with fencing however.
It’s come as a result of huge steps forward in protection and safety equipment technological advances.
Due to these improvements, the only deaths which have been reported from fencing have been as a result of people trying to fence without actually wearing all the safety equipment.
At this point, for over 30 years, if you’ve been wearing the certified safety equipment you’re supposed to wear then you are safe.
So what changed to improve fencing’s safety record? Well it was the tragic death of famous Soviet Olympic Fencing Champion Vladimir Smirnov.
This accident spurred a massive reform effort to make safety equipment much stronger in fencing, and introduced strict testing of equipment for integrity before letting fencers compete.
The Smirnov Accident In 1982
Vladimir Smirnov was the reigning Olympic Champion in Men’s Foil in 1982, having won the 1980 Olympics.
On top of this achievement, he was also the reigning World Champion in Men’s Foil, having won the event in the 1981 Fencing World Championships.
This unsurprisingly had made him a bit of a superstar in fencing, as it very rarely happens that somebody pulls off a double and holds both major titles at the same time.
Unfortunately during the 1982 World Championships while fencing, the sword of Smirnov’s opponent Behr broke during their match.
This breaking meant the broken blade was sharp, and due to incredibly unlucky timing, there was no chance to stop the broken blade from hitting Smirnov and breaking through his fencing mask.
Smirnov sustained a severe head wound from the blade and was hospitalized, later dying.
Having such a high profile and promising fencer die in a tragic accident like this shocked the sport fencing community.
Fencers who would come to prominence later such as Sergei Golubitsky (who famously won the 1997, 1998 and 1999 World Championships consecutively) wrote in his autobiography about how much of an effect the accident had on him as a young fencer.
Comprehensive Equipment Safety Reforms
There were safety reforms made regarding the strength of the fencing mask, the material that fencing blades were allowed to be made out of, and the material that the fencing uniform was made out of following Smirnov’s death.
The masks were strengthened considerably, to be approximately three times stronger than they were previously.
In addition, masks are constantly tested for mesh integrity at fencing competitions using a mask tester, which is the tool shown in the picture below.
If too much give is found in the mask, based on the objective criteria of the tool, it’s forbidden to use it.
Blades were also completely reformed following the accident. Blades were previously made out of Carbon Steel, which is no longer allowed.
Currently blades must be made of Maraging Steel. This is a steel alloy which contains Nickel, Cobalt, and Titanium, among other things.
This material alloy is much, much less likely to break than a carbon steel fencing blade would be.
Maraging steel also contains no Carbon, which means that it’s very bad at holding a sharp edge – which makes it perfect for the purposes of the FIE’s safety standards.
The material of the fencing Jacket, Plastron, and other parts of the uniform has also been strengthened since the Smirnov accident.
Modern day FIE fencing uniforms are made of Kevlar, or a similar “ballistic nylon” material.
This makes it extremely resistant to puncture even with a relatively sharp object such as a broken fencing blade.
In addition, different pieces such as the bib and the mask and the top and neck of the jacket overlap over the neck.
The plastron and Jacket also overlap by the chest and the heart, and the pants and jacket overlap by the waist.
This overlapping is intentional, and provides greater thickness and layers of protection in these areas.
The seam of the plastron and the seam of the jacket don’t cross, meaning that if a blade does happen to hit the seam of the jacket and break through, it’s impossible for the blade to also hit the seam of the plastron and so it will be caught.
There is also a folded over extra layer at the neck of the jacket which is not sewn shut at the bottom.
The purpose of this opening is so that if the blade comes in at a very low angle enough to possibly slip under the fencing mask’s bib, it will get caught in the pocket and stopped.
Overall, the answer to the question “Can fencing kill people” and basically is it a safe sport for me or my kids to participate in is: the sport is perfectly safe if you wear the safety equipment.
The occasional accidents which happen every few years have been in recent generations only due to fencers not wearing the safety equipment they are supposed to, normally younger fencers deciding not to wear the equipment at training.
Once the safety gear is on, nothing is touching you.
At this point the technology and design of the protective equipment has developed far enough that it has a perfect record over multiple decades.
The injuries you’d expect in fencing would be from slips and trips, not life threatening injuries.