Although real-life fencing rarely gives you the opportunity to destroy furniture, swing from chandeliers or sweep comely women off their feet (viz pretty much every film with fencing in, ever) there is no doubt that it's a great sport. A combination of tactical thinking and physical exertion, it’s a fantastic way to exercise mind and body simultaneously.
For many centuries, modern fencing was designed to train a gentleman for duelling, and the sport was heavily influenced by the Spanish, French and Italian schools. Duelling, however, was more or less extinct by 1914 and fencing carried on in a purely sporting form*.
Fencing is open to everyone, regardless of sex, age, disability or handedness (watch out for those spiral staircases, though) and if you’d like to give it a try there are many clubs in London, including the Blades Club and the London Fencing Club.
Olympic and Paralympic fencing are broadly similar, in that they are both split into 3 categories to reflect the weapons used. The main difference is that while Olympic fencers must fight on a narrow 14m-long piste - they are able to travel forwards and backwards, always keeping the dominant foot in front - Paralympic fencers sit in wheelchairs that are clamped into position. The distance between the competitors in Paralympic wheelchair fencing is decided by the competitor with the shortest arm length.
In all the matches the players are connected to an electric scoring system, which announces a hit by activating a light and making a noise when it registers that the weapon has made contact. Umpires, however, are still essential, particularly when it comes to judging right of way (see below). The winner of the match, which is typically divided into several 3 minute bouts, is the fencer that first reaches 15 points, or 5 in the early stages of the Paralympic matches. There are 10 Olympic and 12 Paralympic medals up for grabs, which are split between individual and team events, as well as between categories for levels of disability in the case of the Paralympics.
Fencers wear white kit, which consists of a mask, jacket, plastron (a one-sleeved garment that gives added protection to your sword arm), glove (on the sword hand), breeches, knee-length socks and shoes. If you're a girl, you'll also have to wear a chest protector. The kit is completed by silver lamé jackets for foil and sabre fencers, which facilitates electronic scoring.
This light weapon is the one that most beginners will typically start with. Not that it's in any way easier than the other two - in fact foil requires a lot of finesse due to the small target area and complex right of way system.
The target area is the opponent's torso - both front and back - and a point can be gained by either making an uncontested hit or, if both fencers hit simultaneously, being the fencer with the right of way. This is, for example, given to the fencer who has launched a continuous successful attack, or who has established a point in line prior to being attacked. For a full explanation, visit the International Fencing Federation's website.
As with all the weapons, there are countless moves that you can do, but the basics are: lunge, whereby the attacker springs forward while keeping his back foot stationary, parry, whereby you deflect the opponent's blade, and riposte, which is the attack following a parry. Oh, and look out for a nifty thing called a flèche, which involves complex footwork and will look a bit like the attacking fencer is charging down the piste.
This is the heaviest weapon with the widest blade. It's also a bit more of a free-for-all, as you're allowed to hit your target anywhere and there is no right of way. If you hit simultaneously, therefore, each combantant receives a point. To really annoy someone when you're fencing épée, aim for their feet!
Unlike the other 2 weapons, points in sabre are generally scored with the edge rather than the tip of the blade. Rather than being held horizontally, the Sabre is held in a more upright position and the target area is the torso, arms and head. Matches are governed by a similar right of way system to foil, and sabre competitions are often a lot faster than those with the other two weapons, partly because the emphasis is far more on foot- than blade-work. This year there will be no Olympic women's team sabre event or Paralympic women's sabre events. (Hat tip to Tidalwv in the comments for clarification on this.)
*Modern fencing is distinct from historic fencing and academic fencing, the latter of which will hurt and which you can't try in London!
Get the Londonist lowdown on all Olympic and Paralympic sports in the run up to London 2012.