Fencing Practice and Techniques - Electronic Scoring Equipment

Electronic Scoring Equipment

Electronic scoring is used in all major national and international, and most local, competitions. At Olympic level, it was first introduced to épée in 1936, to foil in 1956, and to sabre in 1988. There are, however, still traditionalists within the fencing community who have fundamental objections to the practice (discussed later on in this section).

The central unit of the scoring system is commonly known as "the box". In the simplest version both fencers' weapons are connected to the box via long retractable cables. The box normally carries a set of lights to signal when a touch has been made. (Larger peripheral lights are also often used.) In foil and sabre, because of the need to distinguish on-target hits from off-target ones, special conductive clothing and wires must be worn. This includes a lamé, (a jacket of conducting cloth) for both weapons, a body cord to connect the weapon to the system, a reel of retractable cable that connects to the scoring box and in the case of sabre, a conducting mask and cuff (manchette) as the head and arms are valid target areas.

Recently, reel-less gear has been adopted for sabre at top competitions, including the Athens Olympics. In this system, which dispenses with the spool (by using the fencer's own body as a grounding point), the lights and detectors are mounted directly on the fencers' masks. For the sake of the audience, clearly visible peripheral lights triggered by wireless transmission may be used. However, the mask lights must remain as the official indicators, as FIE regulations prohibit the use of wireless transmitters in official scoring equipment, to prevent cheating. The development of reel-less scoring apparatus in épée and foil has been much slower due to technical complications. The first international competitions to use the reel-less versions of these weapons were held in 2006.

In the case of foil and épée, hits are registered by depressing a small push-button on the end of the blade. In foil, the hit must land on the opponent's lame to be considered on-target. (On-target hits set off coloured lights; off-target hits set off white lights.) At high level foil and épée competitions, grounded conductive pistes are normally laid down to ensure that bouts are not disrupted by accidental hits on the floor. In sabre, an on-target hit is registered whenever a fencer's blade comes into contact with the opponent's lamé jacket, cuff or mask. Off-target hits are not registered at all in sabre. It has been proposed that a similar arrangement (non-registration of off-target hits) be adopted for foil. This proposal is due to be reviewed at the 2007 FIE Congress. In épée the entire body is on-target, so the subject of off-target hits does not arise (unless you count the hits which miss the opponent entirely and land on an ungrounded section of the floor - needless to say doing so on purpose is considered cheating). Finally the competitors weapons are always grounded so hits against an opponent's blade or coquille do not register.

In foil and sabre, despite the presence of all the gadgetry, it is still the referee's job to analyze the phrase and, in the case of simultaneous hits, to determine which fencer had the right of way.

"Electric" fencing has not been without its problems. One of the most talked about has been the registration of glancing hits in foil. Traditionally, a valid, "palpable" hit could only be scored, if the point were fixed on the target in such a manner, as would be likely to pierce the skin, had the weapon been sharp. However, the electric foil point (the push-button on the end of the blade) lacks directionality, so hits which arrive at a very high angle of incidence can still register. In the 1980s, this led to a growing popularity of hits delivered with a whip-like action (commonly known as "the flick"), bending the blade around the opponent's parry. Many saw this as an unacceptable deviation from tradition. In fact, the disputes over the flick grew so bitter that a number of traditionalists advocated (and still continue to advocate) complete abandonment of electronic scoring as something detrimental to fencing as an art. In 2004-2005 the FIE brought in rule changes to address such concerns. The dwell time (the length of time the point has to remain depressed in order to register a hit) was increased from 1 millisecond to 15 milliseconds. This change has been rather controversial. While it has not eliminated the flick altogether, it has made it technically trickier thereby denting its popularity. However, there have been some serious problems with apparently "palpable" hits not registering. Moreover, the imperative to make clear "square-on" hits has led to a number of unforeseen results, which, it has been argued, have made foil less rather than more classical. The following have been reported:

  • Unwillingness to attack, leading to long periods of inactivity and loss of certain visually striking (but risky) maneuvers;
  • Loss of popularity of the more sophisticated and technically demanding compound actions;
  • A rise in the number of renewed offensive actions (at the expense of counter-ripostes)
  • A rise in the number of counterattacks with avoidance (at the expense of ripostes);
  • Increased popularity of unorthodox "cowering" on-guard positions among young fencers;
  • Bouncing from direct hits on certain protective gear.

Having said that, every one of the above claims is a subject of dispute.

In sabre, the inadequacy of existing sensors has made it necessary to dispense with the requirement that a cut must be delivered with either the leading or the reverse edge of the blade and that, once again, it must arrive with sufficient force to have caused an injury had the blade been sharp (but not so forcefully as to injure your opponent with a blunt weapon!) At present, any contact between the blade and the opponent's target is counted as a valid hit. Some argue that this has reduced sabre to a two-man game of tag; others argue that this has made the game more sophisticated.

The other serious problem in sabre (universally acknowledged as a problem) is that of "whip-over." The flexibility of the blades is such that the momentum of a cut can often "whip" the end of the blade around the defender's parry. The low success rate of parries (compared to other weapons) is seen by many as impoverishing the tactical repertory of the weapon. In 2000 the FIE brought in rule changes requiring stiffer blades. This has improved matters but not eradicated the problem altogether. There has been talk of making the sabre guard smaller, in order to make attacks on preparation and counterattacks easier and thus slow down the momentum of the attack, giving the defender more of a chance.

Finally, the cut-out times deserve a mention. The cutout time is the maximum time allowed by the box between two hits registering as simultaneous (if this time is exceeded, only one light will appear). In épée this time is very short: 40 milliseconds. This means that, so far as human perception is concerned, the hits really do need to arrive at the same instant. In foil and sabre, where priority rules apply, the cutout times are considerably longer (hundreds of milliseconds). This was a source of two problems:

  • Double lights are a frequent occurrence, making refereeing difficult. Too many decisions are disputed.
  • Once again, the attacker gains an unreasonable advantage. It is possible to execute a long marching attack with only a hint of an arm extension, clearly inviting an attack on preparation, which is then followed by a delayed trompment.

For those reasons, in 2004-2005 the FIE slashed the cut-out times for foil and sabre from 750 milliseconds to 350 milliseconds and from 350 milliseconds to 120 milliseconds respectively. While these changes were controversial at first, the fencing community now seems to have accepted them. Some concerns remain at sabre, where immediate renewals frequently "time out" indirect ripostes.

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