From duelling at dawn to wireless scoring: fencing through the ages with Olympic champion Szasz

Fencing is one of just five sports to have been contested at every Olympic Summer Games since Athens 1896, and yet it is set to take to the stage at Tokyo 2020 as one of the most modern and innovative of the 33 on show. Hungary’s Olympic champion Emese Szasz helps explain why.

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Fencing has been capturing imaginations across the globe for almost six centuries. And there are a host of reasons why, not least the mesmerising fact that the tip of a fencing sword is reportedly the second-fastest object in sport, behind only a bullet.

For Rio 2016 women’s individual épée gold-medal winner Emese Szasz, the fascination is simple.

“I just love that it is physical and mental,” said the woman who has been parrying and riposting for 27 years now. “I love it because I love thinking about the next touch all the time.”

The 37-year-old Hungarian is a keen historian, and knows her place among the roll call of famous compatriots who have often dominated the world of fencing. The sport dates back to the 15th century, the prevalence of sword fighting and duelling making it an obvious pastime for swathes of people across Europe and beyond.

Developments came relatively slowly at first. The heavy rapier sword was replaced by the agile foil only in the mid-17th century, and it took until the second half of the 18th century before wire masks were introduced. With safety significantly improved, however, things jumped forwards quickly.

The épée, in which the whole body is a target, as opposed to just the torso in the foil, arrived in the 1860s. A couple of decades later, the sabre, which includes hitting with the cutting edge as well as the point of the sword and originated in the military, started to grab attention.

Electric scoring was the next significant step, led by the high-speed épée in the 1930s. All of this was, of course, long before Szasz’s time. The Hungarian, however, has seen her fair share of innovation in the ancient sport since she started to show promise as a cheerful 10-year-old.

Emese Szasz
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“Wireless fencing was a huge change in my career,” Szasz laughed, before going on to explain how, for decades, fencers were attached to a cumbersome cable as they advanced up and down the piste – the rectangular field of play. It enabled scoring to be monitored fairly, and it took quite a feat of engineering to build a wireless version that could be relied on. Such a system arrived in the early 2000s and was first seen in the sabre at the Olympic Games Athens 2004, and in the other disciplines in Beijing four years later.

For Szasz, who won her first World Championship bronze medal in 2006, it marked a major turning point for the sport.

“I immediately loved the freedom it gave us,” she explained. “The wireless [system] is really good nowadays, and it makes a big difference for the crowd and for the fencers, for sure.”

Head-to-toe improvements followed. The Kevlar-based jackets are now wired to transmit hits straight to the scoring box, which, when combined with laser-line technology, eliminates any marginal calls. And it is not the only upgrade.

“I love the new jackets and trousers; they are much better now,” Szasz said. “The materials have changed [since she started fencing]. They are much lighter and more comfortable. The footwear has definitely helped too. Everyone is so quick and fast, and footwork is really important.”

By the London 2012 Games, all fencers were also wearing masks fitted with LED lighting, giving spectators another opportunity to see hits as they happen.

“It’s really good because the crowd can get more involved; they know what is going on,” Szasz confirmed, before going on to urge newcomers to check out the sport online and on TV.

“Fencing on television nowadays is so good. The slow motion is very good, and in big competitions we have big screens with slow motion. The crowd can see everything, slowed right down, all the little techniques, the fencing motions. I think it’s very interesting.”

The 2018 World Championships in Wuxi, China, featured fencers facing off on a huge LED-lit screen stage, with replays, slow motion and even animated features entertaining the crowds. It is no wonder that International Fencing Federation President Alisher Usmanov said 18 months ago that he expects the sport to be one of the “most modern and innovative” at Tokyo 2020.

Emese Szasz
Picture by Getty Images

For the first time in fencing’s 124-year history at the Games, all three team events will feature in the Japanese capital next summer. Previously, just one team event has taken place, with épée, foil and sabre on rotation every four years.

“It is very good news for the sport,” Szasz said, before adding with a rueful smile, “I am just sad that Hungary’s women’s épée team did not qualify for Tokyo. My whole career I have only fenced in the individual at the Olympic Games, which makes me sad.”

She is desperate to at least be there to defend her individual title but, after taking time off to give birth to twins in August 2019, she faces a stiff battle to secure a qualification spot.

“I have only one chance, through the European zone qualification, and there is only one ticket available to Tokyo there,” the reigning champion said. “I would like to regain my form and be top of women’s épée. If I can and I am successful, maybe I will continue to Paris [2024]. But we will see, we will see how my babies feel without their mum. They are the priority. If they are happy when I travel, I will; but if they don’t like it, I will stay home. They are my bosses.”

Many Olympic fans, having been seduced by Szasz’s non-stop smiling in Rio de Janeiro, will be hoping the little ones let her go. This wonderfully traditional yet conversely high-tech, futuristic sport is all the better for her involvement.