Summer Olympics: All About Modern Pentathlon

All About Modern Pentathlon

The Olympics are a human tradition that goes back to ancient Greece but they’re also very much a product of late 19th century Europe. No event expresses this modern origin better than the Modern Pentathlon, a combination of thoroughly upper class Victorian European activities.

How Does Modern Pentathlon Work?

The modern pentathlon combines five skills into a single event: swimming, show jumping on horses, fencing, running, and pistol shooting. Scores are accumulate throughout the first thee skills: a 200 meter freestyle swim, a show jumping exhibition, and a epee fencing tournament. The cumulative score from those activities gets turned into a ranked list which defines when each athlete starts the final combined run and pistol shooting competition. This combined competition requires athletes to run 800 meters, shoot five targets, and then repeat four times. The genius aspect of using the earlier standings to stagger the start of the combined competition is that the person who finishes the run/shoot first is the overall winner. Another clever aspect of the modern pentathlon is that athletes are paired with a horse randomly 20 minutes before taking part in the show jumping competition. This is a far cry from normal equestrian events when athlete and horse practice together, sometimes for years before the Olympics.

Why do People Like Watching Modern Pentathlon?

One of my favorite stories about sports that I’ve learned over the past few years comes from David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene. In it, he describes “the big bang of sports bodies” that happened during the 1930s. Before that time, the people who ran sports on a national and international level believed that there was basically an ideal body for sports (unsurprisingly a medium sized European man) and that a person possessing that body should be the best at virtually everything. The modern pentathlon clearly stems from that time. Because we now know that there’s an ideal body type for swimming (long torso, big hands and feet) and that it’s different from the ideal body type for running (long legs, very small torso), it’s in some ways extra entertaining to watch a sport that forces people to compete in different sports and rewards versatility.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The modern pentathlon is confusing enough with its five components, that it’s a relief to know it only has two events: men’s and women’s.

How Dangerous is Modern Pentathlon?

Well, let’s see. Swimming is pretty safe, as is running. The shooting is done with lasers, not bullets, so we’re good there. Fencing with epees is going to leave some marks, but no real damage should be done most of the time. Nope, the most dangerous sport in the modern pentathlon by far is the show jumping. Anything on a horse, particularly jumping over barriers, is dangerous! You can get pretty hurt falling off a horse and the pentathlon turns up the difficulty level by asking athletes to compete on well-trained but unfamiliar horses.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Modern Pentathlon?

Perfect — 36 men and 36 women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Modern pentathlon is from Friday, August 19 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Fencing

All About Fencing

Fencing is what happens when a type of fighting, in the process of becoming obsolete, takes a detour and goes down the road of extreme codification that leads inevitably to sport. Fencing is sword fighting with unfathomably complicated rules where no one gets hurt.

How Does Fencing Work?

As you might figure, the point of fencing is to hit the other person with the pointy end before they hit you. (Shout out to all my Game of Thrones peeps out there.) The problem is, Olympic level fencers quite often hit each other at virtually the same time. One solution to this is to put electronic sensors in the swords and the clothing of the fencers. That way, a computer can figure out who hit first when the swords are moving too fast for the eye to see… which is almost all the time. Unfortunately, even electronic sensors can’t tell a lot of the time. So, a complicated set of rules was invented. Without delving too far into these, it’s safe to say that the rules generally favor the more aggressive fencer. If one fencer is on the attack, they will get the point when there is a simultaneous hit.

Why do People Like Watching Fencing?

There’s little doubt about the popularity of sword fighting as a spectator sport. Fencing, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. I imagine a lot of people tune in to fencing to see swashbuckling of the sort they are used to seeing in television shows or movies. You know what I mean, attractive muscly people swinging swords slowly at each other and sustaining attractively placed shallow cuts on just the right parts of their faces or arms. Olympic fencing is not that. The swords often move too quickly to see, and hits happen so fast and simultaneously, that unless you’re an expert in fencing and have amazing eye-sight, you probably can’t see them. Instead of watching the swords, spend some time watching just the feet and legs of the fencers. Divorced from their upper bodies, fencers lower bodies look as though they are engaged in an athletic, balletic, and deadly dance.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Fencing has three disciplines, each tied to a different weapon with different rules. Foil has skinny, flexible swords that you can only score with if you hit the point of the blade on the torso of an opponent. Sabre has a slightly shorter, lighter blade with a larger hand-guard. This is because the entire weapon, not just the point, may be used to strike at the entire upper body of an opponent. Epee blades are heavier and stiffer. Epee is kind of a throw-back event, the closest to “real” sword fighting. The entire body is a target, and, unlike in the other two events, there are no right-of-way rules. In epee, if two fencers hit each other too closely to tell who was first, both get a point. There are also team events. In 2016, men will have a team competition in foil and women in sabre.

How Dangerous is Fencing?

Fencing has freak accidents, like any other activity, but unless a sword breaks it is relatively safe. Fencing outfits may be reinforced slightly, but sabre and especially epee fighters just get used to bruising. It may not be for the weak of heart, but it’s not going to kill or badly hurt anyone.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Fencing?

Very good, at least on the surface. Inclusion of women’s events in the Olympics were a long time coming, but they are here now. Don’t worry about the weird and non-matching team competitions. The Olympics won’t give fencing more medals, so they rotate through the different events for team competitions from one Olympics to the next.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Fencing is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 14 with medal events every day!

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

The About Fencing book – a surprising gift to myself

Last night, I got home to find a mysterious package outside my door. It was addressed to me and it seemed to have come from England but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what I had ordered. An unexpected package is among life’s most sublime mysteries.

Box from London

I immediately grabbed a knife and opened the box. Maybe there would be cookies (or biscuits, as I guess the British would call them) inside! Okay, so there were no cookies, but what waited for me inside the box was exciting too!

About Fencing Cover

Massimiliano Longo’s book About Fencing is a wonderful instructional and educational book aimed at beginner fencers, both young and young at heart. You can purchase a copy of it for only $15 here. I discovered this book back in September while I was doing research for my post on why people like fencing. At that time, the author was running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for translating his fencing manual for kids and adults into English and producing a UK and USA edition of the book. I helped fund the project and promptly forgot about it. I think forgetting about and then being surprised is one of the best aspects of crowd funding. The text suffers a little in some parts from having been translated from Italian but the author’s spirit and excitement about fencing shine through. Longo (like a good fencer should be able to do) masterfully walks the thin line between simplifying enough for children to understand while not talking down to them in any way.

Here are a few of my favorite parts of the book.

Interactive diagrams that show the correct target area for each weapon on a line-drawing in green and ask you to “use your finger as a” sword and start training with the book.

Hit the Target

Amazing visualizations that show how a fencing sword is put together.

Epee Diagram

My favorite written section of the book provided full coverage of fencing for the disabled, including a description of the mechanics of fencing in wheelchairs and the various divisions based on what type of capabilities the fencers have. Best of all, it introduced the concept of fencing for the blind! I know, this sounds like an incredible training exercise that the Inigo Montoya and the man in black may have done, but according to Longo, it’s also an increasingly popular worldwide sport. It’s also egalitarian; sighted fencers can join in with the aid of a simple blind-fold.

If you contributed to the crowd funding of this fine book, you’ll probably be enjoying your copy soon. If not, it’s never to late to purchase one for you or the aspiring fencer in your life. You can find a copy on the Leon Paul website.


Why do people like fencing?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do people like fencing? I went to my cousin’s fencing tournament and I couldn’t follow it at all. It looked like people just jumping at each other and arbitrarily scoring. What am I missing?


Fencing has extraordinary graceful movements

— — —

Dear Frances,

Good for you for supporting your cousin, even if it was hard to tell what was going on and to enjoy the fencing tournament. You’re absolutely right that fencing can be bewildering to watch if you don’t know what’s going on or are far away. That said, there are lots of good answers to your question of “why do people like fencing?” Here are just a few:

  1. Fencing is the Paleo of sports — what is more “natural” than fencing? I suppose boxing or any of the track and field events are on the same level with fencing, but it doesn’t get much more instinctive than grabbing a long object and trying to hit the other gal before she hits you. There’s an appeal to sports like fencing that abstract a real-world (and in the case of fencing, absolutely vital) activity and puts it into a sports context. If you care to learn more than you ever thought you’d know about the history of fencing while seriously enjoying yourself, Richard Cohen’s By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions is your best bet.
  2. So many awesome cultural parallels — If there was ever a sport to capture the imagination of children and adults alike, it would be fencing. In our days of seemingly constant, low-grade but disturbing armed conflict, there’s something romantic about the days when combat was done face to face between people armed with swords. Not that war was ever actually romantic in any way but it certainly seems that way from the way it shows up in our culture. From the lightly satiric The Princess Bride to the many versions of Robin Hood (I grew up with Errol Flynn’s version and, of course, the comedy, Robin Hood: Men In Tights) to one of the consensus top ten movies ever filmed, Seven Samurai, to the modern classic of revenge, Kill Bill, sword-fighting has been at the center of many of our favorite movies. Even our best science fiction movies like Star Wars take fencing into the future to grab viewers’ attention. In terms of books, there’s almost an entire genre (fantasy) that leans on the appeal of fencing to draw its audience in. I’ve recently enjoyed a new epic series called the Mongoliad that’s chock full of sword fighting and describes in great detail different styles of fencing from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean to Mongolia. LARPing or Live Action Role Playing is an increasingly popular activity for people interested in sword fighting. None of these things are fencing but any of them could be a reason for picking up the sport and giving it a try.
  3. Fencing is incredibly fast and graceful — As you mentioned in your question, it’s sometimes hard to see what’s happening because fencers are so fast and it’s definitely hard to tell how precise, measured, and graceful their movements are because great fencers package seven distinct motions in the time it takes most of us to think about getting off the couch. A practiced fencing fan, likeRay Glickman, the grandfather of top U.S. Junior Boy’s fencer Ethan Mullennix, can learn to appreciate fencing in person. “It’s just beautiful to watch. They move like ballet dancers,” Glickman said to Mike Kepka for his article on Mullennix in For the rest of us, luckily, we can watch videos of fencing in slow motion like this amazing one
  4. It’s an amazing workout —  I did a couple weeks of fencing camp when I was a kid, so I can personally attest to this benefit of fencing. It may not look like it would be as much of a workout as some other sports, but the main challenge is not one that’s easy to see if you’re not looking for it. Virtually every move in fencing, from the start of a bout to the end, is done in a full-on deep knee bend position. It’s like playing a sport while doing squats. After just a minute or two of fencing, your quads begin to burn and they don’t stop. If you’ve got bad knees or are trying to protect yourself from ever having bad knees, fencing is the perfect sport for you. According to, you can burn 430 calories for 150 lb person in one hour of fencing.
  5. Technicalities and technology — One of the common themes that runs through enjoyment of sport is understanding and enjoying the technicalities of an activity. Fencing has an enormous number of technicalities! First of all, there are three types of fencing, each which has a different weapons and a different set of rules about where you are allowed to hit your opponent. Even more delightfully technical are the right-of-way rules that dictate who gets the point if the two fencers hit each other at exactly the same time. The action is so fast and the rules so precise that most guides to watching fencing, like this one from Crimson Blades fencing academy, suggest watching the referee to see what has happened. Even this takes some work to learn how to interpret the referee’s hand signals as you can see in this awesome poster:
    Fencing Ref Signals
    This wonderful illustration of the referee signals in fencing (one wonders if, in action, they look just a little like this,) comes from fencing instructor and author Massimiliano Longo who is currently raising money for a US and UK version of his wonderful illustrated guide to fencing for children. Please give his Indiegogo page a look and think about helping to fund it. I donated today!

So, there you have it — five answers to the question, “Why do people like fencing?” I hope these give you a reason to go back to your cousin’s next fencing tournament or even think about starting to fence yourself! If you’re interested, U.S. Fencing is a good resource for finding a fencing club near you.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer