The three styles of Olympic fencing today, foil epee and saber, are all fenced as one-on-one individual matches.
However, there are two aspects of fencing which are more team focused. First of all, during the team events at the Olympics, or at other competitions, there is a kind of “Individual Team” setup.
This means everyone will be part of a team (Team France for example) where they compete against members of another team as individuals, but they share the score with their other team members.
This is explained further below, along with the surprisingly complex strategy it requires.
On top of the teams a country like Germany or the USA will have, there is one important team consideration in fencing which is not present in all individual sports.
It’s actually not possible to improve and develop as a fencer by yourself. Even by yourself with a coach, you can’t develop to a high level in fencing.
You need to have training partners who are tough and strong, so they can develop your fencing ability and keep you sharp.
In this way fencing is a lot like boxing or MMA, where training partners are an essential part of improving, even though these are all individual sports.
Compare these to something like the Javelin throw event.
That would require a good coach and training facilities, but technically speaking you don’t really need other javelin throwers to help you improve the way a boxer or fencer needs them – you just need to get better at throwing the javelin further reliably.
So is fencing a sport where you perform alone in tournaments? Yes – it’s just you and your opponent on the piste, with maybe a coach or some friends cheering you on the sidelines. Is it a sport that you train alone? Definitely not!
A Team Competition Of Individuals
So if fencing is a sport which is competed individually, how do they hold the team events at the Olympics? They run the team events in a style called “Italian Relay”.
Each team has three fencers and a substitute on the bench. Each fencer will fence every member of the other team.
They don’t do three in a row, because they don’t want to give a team an advantage by tiring out one player, so they will do person 1 on team A fencing person 1 on team B, then person 2 on team A fencing person 2 on team B.
They keep switching people until everyone has fenced everyone.
Unlike a normal elimination match up to 15, team matches are up to 45. Each individual round of a match goes on until the target score has been reached.
Since there are 3 people on each team, and everyone has to fence every member of the other team, this means a team match has 9 rounds.
The first round goes until someone reaches 5 points. Then the fencers switch to the different members of their team. Then the second round goes until someone reaches 10 points.
They switch again. The third round goes to 15 points. This continues all the way up until the final score of 45 is reached, or until they run out of time.
Each round has a 3 minute timer – this explained in more detail in our “How is fencing scored” article, which you can see by clicking here.
So you simply find the three best fencers from your country and hope that they’re better on average than the three best fencers from the other country right?
Not exactly. If you haven’t already spotted it, here are the things that make this “Italian Relay” team match setup so strategic.
1. Rounds Don’t Stop After You Score 5 Points – They Stop After The Target Score Is Reached
In a team bout, the first round stop at five. Let’s say a team wins the first round 5 to 0. Then in the next round, the fencers are fencing to 10.
The team with five points can get to 10, and the team with 0 points can also get to 10. If they stage a good enough comeback, they can regain the lead – they aren’t capped at 5 points like the other team is.
This means that at any stage of the team bout, it’s possible to completely lose your lead and have the other team pull back even from massive deficits, if one of your fencers performs badly enough in their round (or the opponent’s fencer performs really well).
This is why for example if you put two complete beginners on a team with the Olympic champion, then put them against a team of relatively experienced regional fencers, it’s almost certain the team with the Olympic champ would win.
The two beginners might be beaten by the intermediate fencers, but the Olympic champ would be able to beat the intermediate fencers and regain the lead every time they did their round – for example say the beginners do round 1 and 2.
The team is losing 10 to 0 as the beginners didn’t get a single point on the regional fencers, and they start round 3.
Now the Olympic champ fencer is against one of the regional fencers and they are fencing to the round three target score of 15, since it increases by 5 every round.
The round ends with team Olympic Beginners winning 15 – 10. This cycle then continues, the beginners switch on and the team is losing 20 to 15 and 25 to 15 as the rounds go by.
Then the champ steps on again and brings the score back to 30 to 25. They will eventually win, because they can put the Olympic champion on for the final round and they can come back to hit the final target score of 45.
This is why a team has to have each link of the chain be very strong, otherwise the other team will take loads of free points in a single round and undo all the hard work they did building a lead!
A good example of this would be in the Russia vs USA match of the 2018 World Championships. Team USA were down 15 to 9 in the 4th round of their team bout.
Then Miles Chamley-Watson went on a tear for the US and finished the bout reaching the target score of 20.
That means he scored 11 points in total in the round, and also only gave 1 point up, ending the leg at 16 to 20. This completely reversed the lead in the match with just one round:
2. “MMA Logic” Doesn’t Work In Fencing Either
Fencer A beats Fencer B every time they fence. Fencer B beats Fencer C every time they fence. Surely Fencer C will lose to Fencer A even more devastatingly right?
Nope, turns out Fencer C beats Fencer A every time they fence. What is going on?
Due to what we’ll just call “stylistic differences” it’s actually surprisingly common for there to be very little consistency if you use MMA logic to figure out which fencer is going to win a particular matchup.
Sometimes fencers are fifty-fifty and every time they fence it’s a coin toss.
Sometimes it’s the opposite of what you would expect. A perfect example of this is Alessio Foconi and Marcus Mepstead.
Foconi has been ranked number 1 in the world for the past several (non Covid) years, while Mepstead has been ranked closer to 40th or 50th in that period.
This has not stopped Mepstead from beating Foconi in their matchups very reliably.
Clearly despite it not looking good on paper, you want to have Mepstead in against Foconi if you were to do a team match between their two countries (the UK and Italy).
Examples of this continue all throughout fencing, meaning that dictating who exactly is going to be on a team is much more of an art than a science.
Fencing in very much an individual sport, but competing in team events is an intrinsic part of the event. Half of the olympic events are team, and these are generally the more exciting and suspenseful matches you can find!
This is because due to the unique nature of Italian Relay bouts, the lead for each side in any given team match can swing around wildly and sometimes very unpredictably.
This makes fencing a great sport for people who prefer to rely on themselves as it’s a one to one sport, but who still enjoy being part of a team.
You can become one of the vital links in a chain, much like a 400 relay race in track and field for example.
The team spirit and the team atmosphere that comes with a group event can also reach levels way more intense than individual matches, such as the famous Italy vs Germany match below.