Fencing has been adapted for wheelchair users and is a popular Paralympic sport. It has been a part of the Paralympic Games since the very first Games in 1960. It is governed by the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS), a federation of the International Paralympic Committee. It is a fast-paced sport that requires the fencer to be strong in their tactics and technique. Athletes include those with lower-body amputations, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury. At the Paralympics, men and women compete in separate events. Fencers compete in both individual and team events. Three different weapons are used, the bout determining which weapon is used.
History of Wheelchair Fencing
Wheelchair fencing was created by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games. Although the sport has been a part of every Games since the beginning, it wasn’t until 1996 that Team USA competed in wheelchair fencing for the first time. When the sport was first developed, athletes used heavy brown wheelchairs, known as travaux chairs.
Wheelchairs became lighter over time, which raised a stability issue for fencers. In the beginning, an individual would crouch behind the athletes’ chairs, hanging onto the wheels in order to keep them stable. Today, wheelchairs are fastened to rails on 13 feet long by 5 feet wide frames that are fastened to the floor, known as the piste. The frames are angled at 110 degrees so that the fencers’ sword arms directly oppose each other. The distance between the opponents, is determined by the arm length of the fencer with the shortest arm reach.
Rules in Wheelchair Fencing
The rules are based on the rules of traditional fencing, as stated by the International Fencing Federation (FIE), but with appropriate amendments made to meet the needs of the wheelchair fencers. Participating fencers are not allowed to stand up from their wheelchair during the competition between the two opponents, known as a bout. In order to dodge their opponent’s touches, fencers rely on ducking, half-turns and leaning.
Competitors are electronically connected to a scoring box that records the hits on their opponent. In the beginning rounds, each bout lasts three minutes. The first fencer to score five hits wins. The later stages of the competition consist of three three-minute rounds per bout. The first fencer to score 15 hits is declared the winner.
As in many adaptive sports, athletes are put into classifications in order to ensure a fair competition. These classifications are based on the athletes’ abilities:
Class A — athletes with full trunk movement and good balance
Class B — athletes with no leg movement and impaired trunk and balance functions
Wheelchair Fencing Gear
For safety precautions, wheelchair fencers must wear protective gear including protective masks, gloves, puncture-resistant jackets and breeches. Each event requires use of different swords called the foil, epée and sabre. The lightest and most flexible of the three, the foil, weighs less than a pound. During foil bouts, protective shields cover the wheelchair and the fencer’s primary target is the opponent’s torso.
The epée features a larger hand guard to protect the fencer from the stiff blade, as it is the heaviest weapon and more rigid. In an epée bout, metal aprons are used to make sure touches aren’t registered outside of the target area, which is the whole body above the waist. The sabre is unique in that it is shaped like a blade and has a flat edge. It was modeled after the cavalry sword, being short, flexible and ideal for faster movements. Fencers score hits with the edge of the weapon by hitting a target area anywhere above the waist.