By Gregg Xenakes, Olympic Contributor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - One of only four sports to be featured at each of the modern Olympiads, fencing is set to bring as many as 212 athletes to London this summer to compete in 10 medal events.
While combat using bladed weapons dates back thousands of years, fencing as we have come to understand it began to take shape and be defined in the 19th century.
There are three distinct divisions in which competitors battle: foil, epee and sabre. In order to avoid referee error or bias, the scoring system for the events is based on the validity of touches that are measured with an electronic scoring apparatus. Typically, hits are registered in sabre action by the edge of the weapon, while the foil and epee record points with their tips.
Men have been competing in foil and sabre events since 1896, with the epee events being added four years later in Paris. Women began their foray into Olympic fencing in 1924 with foil. It wasn't until 1996 that the programs added epee for women, and 2004 that sabre was introduced.
Epee competition allows both fencers to score at the same time, while sabre and foil both designate points according to right of way and timing rules that allow only one combatant to score a hit at a time. Individual bouts are divided into three, three-minute periods or until one competitor has logged 15 hits to capture a victory. Team events set three groups of three fencers against opponents in a total of nine, three-minute bouts or until one side accumulates 45 points.
Each of the 10 medal events (men's individual foil, epee, and sabre; women's individual foil, epee, and sabre; team foil for both men and women; men's team sabre; and women's team epee) is conducted in a knockout format, with matchups determined by existing Federation Internationale D'Escrime (FIE) rankings.
Not surprisingly, Europeans dominated the medal ceremonies for fencing in Beijing four years ago as France, Italy and Germany all took home a pair of golds, while the United States placed second in overall medals with six (three silver, two bronze and one gold).
In terms of the international rankings for the 2011-12 season, in the men's epee the top performer is Estonia's Nikolai Novosjolov, followed by Fabian Kauter of Switzerland and Paolo Pizzo from Italy.
Men's foil lists two Italians as the top contenders; Andrea Cassara and Valerio Aspromonte. On an international scale, Race Imboden of the United States ranks fifth.
In the men's sabre, Italy again is well represented with Aldo Montano, Diego Occhiuzzi and Luigi Tarantino. The U.S. men making the cut for this division are Daryl Homer, Timothy Morehouse and James Williams. Germany's Nicolas Limbach is recognized as the top-ranked performer, while Alexey Yakimenko is one of three Russians hoping to medal.
On the women's side, in the sabre competition USA's Mariel Zagunis earns top honors in this division. Russia's Sofya Velikaya and the Ukraine's Olga Kharlan are expected to excel as well.
Three of the top international women in the foil division hail from Italy, with Valentina Vezzali the top-ranked performer heading to London. Elisa Di Francisca and Arianna Errigo are also strong contenders, but slipping into the second ranking internationally is Korea's Hyun Hee Nam.
Yujie Sun and Na Li of China will be shooting for the gold in the women's epee, but they will be challenged by Anca Maroiu and Simona Gherman, both from Romania.
The United States team for this year consists of mostly newcomers to the Olympic scene, although there are a number of participants who took part in the festivities four years ago. Oregon native Zagunis is competing in her third Olympics.
Zagunis won a pair of medals in Beijing, taking home her second straight gold in the individual sabre competition and adding a bronze in the team sabre as well. In 2004, Zagunis became the first U.S. fencer in 100 years to capture a gold medal.
One of Team USA's most accomplished epee fencers is Seth Kelsey, a member of the first U.S. men's epee team ever to earn a medal at a Senior World Championships -- a silver at the 2010 Worlds in Paris.
07/19 13:07:36 ET