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CHIBA, Japan—Fencing had a problem. The world’s best fencers were refusing to actually fence.
For various strategic reasons, the world’s most prestigious epee matches were devolving into long stretches in which the sword fighters simply stood around, fighting as much as a pair of pacifists. They would sometimes just salute one another to signal they preferred to lay down their weapons for the round.
But fencing didn’t have a rule to stop it. It was the fencing equivalent of basketball without a shot clock—with the action grinding to a halt for almost the entire game.
The comic severity of the issue within the epee discipline was laid bare by the name of the rule fencing’s governing body came up with as a solution. It’s called the “Unwillingness to Fight” rule.
The Tokyo Games are the first Olympics since this rule penalizing fencers for inactivity was implemented in 2019, and people inside the sport say it’s not just one of the most seismic changes in modern fencing history. They say it has reinvigorated a sport that features sharp weapons yet had become painfully dull.
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