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Gallery Highlight: The Art of Fencing

10 October 2023

By 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum Curatorial Team

Through compelling images and rare artefacts, the Global History of Sport gallery at 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum (QOSM) sheds light on a princely combat sport.

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The human urge to run, jump, throw, catch and kick has evolved over the centuries into sports we all know and love today. Communities developed these games to celebrate rites of passage, mark the seasons or express devotion to nature and spirituality. Hunting games emerged from survival tactics, and military sports evolved from serving the interests of powerful leaders.

Many combat sports — some of which date back to ancient editions of the Olympic Games — have their origins in a combination of entertainment, physical training and military preparedness. Unarmed combat sports include boxing and wrestling, while hybrid forms combine unarmed techniques with specific tools. The ancient Chinese art wushu, for example, can include knives, whips or swords.

Swords make an appearance in many armed combat sports, including Japanese kendo, which features bamboo swords. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there is evidence of sword fights as far back as ancient Egypt. While the specific origins of modern fencing are cloudy, it is widely accepted that the sport boasts a centuries-long history, with mentions of it appearing in literature as far back as the works of William Shakespeare.

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Caption: Rapier fencing sword with floral decoration, Southern Netherlands, about 1630 CE. This type of sword was incredibly popular in 16th- and 17th-century Europe when it would have been considered an acceptable civilian sidearm. Photo courtesy of 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum ©2023.

While certain elements of fencing have evolved over time, the core goal of ‘making hits’ by striking the opponent with a weapon in exchange for points has remained the same. Within that constant, there are three different swords used for three very different game plays: the foil, épée, and sabre.

The sword shown above, which is on view at 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, is a perfect example of how, in the 1600s, lighter and more slender rapier swords gradually replaced heavier ones. These swords often featured a slender, two-edged blade and a wide guard with an ornate cage designed to protect the fighter’s hand from potential injury.

Rapiers were also once referred to as ‘dress’ swords due to their popularity as a fashion accessory.

As this and other objects in the gallery attest — from chariot racing in ancient Rome to horseback archery in the Gulf — the thrill and excitement of the contest remains a constant across centuries of sport.

Plan your visit today to visit learn about the global history of sport.