Wheelchair fencing goes a long way back since its first appearance at the Paralympics in 1960. Here are a few standout moments from the recent Games.
1. Bebe Vio becomes Paralympic icon
Having gone 11 tournaments undefeated in the lead-up to Rio 2016, 19-year-old Bebe Vio of Italy was the overwhelming favourite for foil B gold, and she did not disappoint on her Paralympic debut.
Facing China’s Jingjing Zhou in the final, Vio quickly built up a 13-7 lead but there were tense moments before she could seal the title. At one point, Zhou’s weapon pierced Vio’s mask and the latter needed ice applied to the back of her head. Vio, who overcame meningitis early in her life, remained undeterred and showed resolve to return and win the contest at 15-7.
2. Yu Chui Yee emerges as one of sport’s best
Hong Kong’s Yu Chui Yee burst into the scene with her Paralympic debut in 2004. A bone cancer survivor, Yu discovered wheelchair fencing during rehab and her talent shined bright when she claimed four gold (individual and team foil/epee category A). She went on to compete at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, winning seven more medals (three golds), and is still going for her fifth Games in Tokyo next year.
3. Paralympic and Olympic glory
Hungary’s Pal Szekeres entered into history books with his Paralympic title at Barcelona 1992. He won individual foil and became the first person to win a Paralympic and Olympic medal in the sport. He had won bronze at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games as a professional fencer before a bus accident in 1991 when he was returning from a fencing competition in Germany. After recovering, Szekeres opted to attend a wheelchair fencing camp nearby where the German team was training for the European Championships. One of Germany’s coaches, a Hungarian, spoke with Szekeres’ doctor and persuaded him to allow his patient to compete in the Championships. His fencing skills never left him, and next thing he knew, he was a Paralympic champion.
4. Home glory
China dominated the piste in their home Paralympic Games in 2008, winning six of the 10 events. Hu Daoliang and Ye Ruyi each, won a pair of gold medals. Chinese athletes had also made it to every final except the men’s sabre B. China would have won more, but Hong Kong’s Chan Yui Chong and Yu Chui Yee served spoils by winning their respective gold medal events against their Chinese counterparts.
5. Brazil on board
Brazil made a dramatic Paralympic debut in the sport at London 2012, with Jovane Silva Guissone winning gold in the epee category B event. It was a nail-biting victory, with Guissone striking the winning blow on Hong Kong’s Chik Sum Tam for the 16-15 victory.
Wheelchair fencing was developed by the father of the Paralympic Movement Sir Ludwig Guttmann. Having featured at the International Stoke Mandeville Games in Great Britain in 1955, the sport was then on the programme at the very first Paralympics since 1960.
Fencing is the closest one can get to medieval combat. Two athletes battle on a ‘piste’ and win points when their weapon touches their opponent. In wheelchair fencing, competitors are firmly fixed to a metal frame in the piste.
Given the fast and furious nature of the sport, athletes are required to wear a protective mask, gloves and jacket at all times.
The fencers start with blades raised in the ‘en garde’ position. This position is held until the referee calls ‘play’ and the bout begins.
There are three weapons – epee, foil and sabre.
The epee is the heaviest weapon at 770g and is more rigid than the other swords. Points are scored by touching the tip of the blade on any part of the opponent’s body above the waist.
The foil is lighter and highly flexible. In the foil event, points are awarded for landing the tip of the blade on the opponent’s torso, but not the limbs or head.
The sabre has a short, flexible blade and differs from the other events in that points are scored by hitting the opponent with the cutting edge, the flat or the back of the blade.
Duration and scoring
An electronic scoring system registers when a hit has been successfully landed and the scoreboard updates accordingly.
In the early pool rounds, the winner is the first fencer to reach five points or the fencer with the highest score after a single bout of three minutes.
In the direct elimination rounds, the victor is the first to 15 points or whoever has the most points after three bouts of three minutes.
In team matches, teams are made up of three fencers. Each fencer faces each opponent in the other team in a single bout of three minutes. The winning team is the team with the most points when the time is up, or the first to reach a cumulative score of 45 points.
At the Paralympic Games, wheelchair fencers compete in two classifications:
• Class A athletes have good trunk control, allowing them to bend forward and sideways explosively when attacking their opponent or dodging an attack.
• Class B have an impairment that impacts their legs as well as their trunk or their fencing arm.
Key terms to know
The initial offensive move the fencer makes by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target is known as the ‘attack.’ This precedes the launching of a lunge or ‘fleche.’
A ‘parry’ is when a fencer blocks an opponent’s attack with his/her weapon.
The ‘riposte’ is a counter-offensive move made by the fencer who has parried the attack.