Tech has always been changing sports—we just haven’t always noticed.
Technology has changed sports by offering things like instant replay and the ability to determine precisely where a ball is relative to lines on the field and court. But these offerings don’t always sit well with players and fans, who may worry about the loss of some human influence on the run of play. It has been said that no technology is value-neutral, that it will—in undetermined ways—influence anything it is applied to. Technology has now been applied to many sports, which have changed as a result, as evidenced by one of the oldest sports around.
Fencing is an old sport. The earliest evidence of it comes from Egypt during the reign of Rameses III. A relief carving from roughly 1190 BCE in the temple of Madinat Habu depicts combatants wearing masks and wielding weapons as part of a bout or tournament. The modern sport has its earliest roots in 15th century Spain, where Diego de Valera wrote Treatise on Arms, a manuscript discussing swordsmanship for duels and self-defense.
Fencing can be traced through the European Renaissance. Eventually, dueling weapons and blade weapons fell out of favor, replaced by black powder and guns. For swords, this was reflected in a change in nature from a cutting to a thrusting action coupled with more skilled swordsmanship. These changes favored using agility and speed as opposed to brute force.
Other key changes in the sport of fencing took place in London in the 1700s. Over three generations, Domenico Angelo’s family laid out the basic rules of posture and footwork that we still see today. Through their influence, the first regular fencing competition was held in 1880 outside of London, featuring bouts between British Army officers and regular soldiers. The goal then was similar to today: to win, a fencer must score a number of hits on their opponent—in this case, five.
This brings us to one of the central conundrums in fencing: how does one determine a ‘hit’ in such a rapidly paced sport with any real accuracy?
According to the rules, a point is scored when a “palpable” hit is landed on the opponent. This is a hit that, had this been a duel with real weapons, would have significantly injured the fencer. What that looks like depends on the weapon. In modern fencing, there are three sword types used, and what quantifies a hit differs slightly in all three.
The lightest weapon is the foil, used as a thrusting weapon; a hit occurs when the point of the foil touches the opponent’s torso, neck, or groin (hits to the arms and legs do not count). Stepping up in weight is the épée. Like the foil, it is a thrusting weapon, but a touch of the point anywhere on the body is considered a valid hit. The heaviest sword is the sabre. It has a valid target area of anywhere above the waist, excluding the hands. However, a sabre hit can be made with the edge of the blade as well as the tip.
Traditionally scoring was handled by a group of five individuals. One acted as the president (also referee, or director), while the remaining four were judges. When a touch occurred during a flurry of action, it would be up to the four judges who each had one vote (“Yes,” “Yes, but off target,” “No,” or “Abstain”), while the president had one-and-a-half votes. To aid this effort, dye was often added to the swords, allowing a judge/referee to clearly see where someone had been touched.
While these calls would always be difficult, as stakes got higher and nationalistic pride became involved, collusion and cheating crept into the sport. Such issues led to the refrain that a match was scored by “four blind men and a thief.” It was clear a new system was needed.
As a result, fencing led the way in electronic scoring. The first attempt by Robert Houdin dates back to 1840, but the approach didn’t gain acceptance until 1896. That’s when British fencing master M. Bertrand demonstrated an electronic scoring system for the foil that had been developed by one Mr. Little, an amateur swordsman. His system contained a buzzer mounted to the wall, with a wire going to the collar of each fighter, down their arm, and into the handle of their foil. When a hit was scored, the blade of the foil would be pressed back into the handle, completing a circuit and triggering a buzzer.
International competition saw the first electronic scoring with the épée in the 1936 Olympics. It was extended to the foil in the 1956 Olympics, and finally the saber in the 1988 summer games. The different dates represent the complexity of what counts as a legal hit. In épée, any hit on the opponent’s body counts, so all that’s needed is a tip that can be pressed in on contact, completing a circuit. In sabre and foil, where there are limited hit locations, a bit more nuance is needed. In each of these fights, in addition to the signal from the sword, special conductive clothing must also be worn: a conductive lamé (jacket) for foil and specialized conductive masks and cuffs for sabre.
More recently, fencing has been cutting the cord. Wireless, or reel-less, systems have been developed and deployed that no longer require the fighter to be connected physically to the scoring system. There are lights that appear on the fighter’s mask that are the official source of whether a hit has been made.
Although the addition of electronic scoring made it easier to determine when a fighter scores a hit on the other, it hasn’t settled all the arguments. A frequent complaint about earlier implementations was that the blade registered a hit regardless of whether this was a “palpable” hit (as opposed to a glancing blow). Combatants started employing a “flick” maneuver, where they would simply flick their sword at their opponent, bending the blade around a defensive parry and scoring a very gentle touch.
To address this, fencing’s international body changed the requirement of what defines a “palpable hit” by increasing the time that a button must be depressed from 1 millisecond to 15. This change forced fighters to deliver the direct blows that the sport’s rules required.
Even with this technology, referees are still needed for two weapons. In foil and sabre, if simultaneous hits occur, the fighter who initiated the attack has the right of way, and hence is awarded the point. Human judgement is still used here to determine if Han shot first who began the attack first. However, even that may be changing in the future.
Ars spoke with Jon Normile, a fencer on the United States team in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He suggested that motion-capture technology may one day have a significant technological impact on the sport. While it’s currently a bit far-fetched, it’s possible that cameras and sensors may allow computers to determine who has right-of-way with indisputable accuracy.
(For those who speak the appropriate language, you can see some further demonstrations.)
While many sports have brought technology to bear on tricky problems in the past 20 years, fencing has been on the leading edge of using technology for over 80 years now. Where it takes sports technology in the future may help us get a glimpse at how other sports will follow.