Monday, July 30, 2012

If you've never watched fencing before, I hope you didn't pick today to start

Oh the wonders of the Olympics.  If you've never watched fencing before today, I hope you didn't pick today to start.  The trouble took place in the second of two women's epee semi-final bouts between Britta Heidemann of Germany, and A Lam Shin of South Korea.  The bout started off like any other.  Heidemann got up to a 2-0 lead.  Shin came back, and the score was tied at 5-5 when time expired.  Per the rules of fencing, Shin won the coin toss, and so there was to be a one-minute sudden death overtime, and because Shin won the coin toss, if the score remained tied, Shin would be declared the winner.

Coin tosses are a stupid way to determine a winner, but as it turns out, that would only play a small part in the travesty that would unfold.  With priority to Shin, Heidemann was forced to be the aggressor, launching a number of aggressive attacks, however in every case, Shin was able to get her point on for the double touch (in priority, nothing done).  Heidemann scores another double with one second remaining, and it looks all but over for her.

This is when things first started to go sour.  With almost no time remaining, Heidemann was trying to get every advantage possible, and so she was attempting to start as close as possible to Shin.  In fencing, both fencers are supposed to start far enough apart so that their weapons do not overlap when fully extended.  This was clearly not happening.  Not for nothing, Shin was backed up near the end of the piste, and was also trying to creep up.  Both fencers were trying to get every advantage they could with only one second remaining, and the referee was doing a terrible job of enforcing the rules on the strip.

Screen-grab courtesy of forum member Noahz.

So with one second left, Heidemann attacks, and it's a double touch.  Still one second showing on the clock. Again, with "one second" left, Heidemann attacks, and again it's a double.  Still "one second" remaining.  Then, for some reason, between touches, the clock expires.  If I were to guess, I'd say the timekeeper forgot to start it during the previous touch, and was hoping to run some time off to make up for his mistake... which, of course, turned this into an even bigger mistake.  Now the clock was at 0, but clearly time can't expire in between touches, so they had to reset it.*

As it turns out, even at the highest level the sport, they don't use a timekeeping device that gives a display more precise than seconds.  It also appears they can't even manually set the clock, so when they needed to reset it (to some time less than a second), the only way they could do it was by running the clock down from a minute, to their best guess of how much time should be remaining.  Which is actually consistent with the official rule book.
t.32.3.: "Should there be a failure of the clock or an error by the timekeeper, the Referee must estimate how much fencing time is left."
So the referee estimated to the greatest precision of the timekeeping device that there was "one second" remaining.  Again, the fencers came en guarde too close to each other, and this time, in less than a second, Heidemann scored a single-light touch.  She was the winner.  Or was she?

Clearly, after a scorekeeping travesty like this, the bout wasn't about to end without a protest.  For about 15 minutes, the two fencers sat on the strip while a variety of FIE bigshots discussed how badly they had fucked this up.  Heidemann was re-affirmed as the winner of the bout, attempted to shake Shin's hand, and left the strip.  At this point, the Korean coach was attempting to launch an official protest of the ruling, and apparently, while this was going on, Shin was required to sit, alone, on the strip because leaving the strip would count as officially accepting the ruling against her.  So there she was, alone in the middle of the giant stadium, crying for everyone to see.

Some time in the middle, there was an announcement to the crowd that the Korean delegation needed to collect a "sum of money" in order to have their appeal heard (and quickly rejected).  This is on top of the language barrier that was presumably causing some difficulties.

After about 45 minutes of this, an official came up an informed her that if she didn't leave the strip, she would be black carded.

That, by itself was also odd, since presuming she lost, she would be immediately up on the strip again fencing in the bronze medal bout.  Couldn't she just stay there?  Apparently the FIE has very strict rules about leaving the piste between bouts, but very lax rules on counting seconds.

This was clearly a travesty, and an embarrassment to the sport of fencing.  Shin clearly was robbed of that bout, and yet, after all that transpired, it would have been even more wrong to overturn what happened.  The two fencers were placed en guarde with a specified amount of time on the clock and allowed to fence.  Heidemann scored before time expired.  It's too late to go back and say "well maybe there shouldn't have been so much time on the clock" or "we probably shouldn't have allowed them to fence starting from so close to each other."  The situation was messed up, but it is in times like this that the rules are of utmost paramount, and there simply weren't any grounds to overturn the action within the scope of the rulebook.

Also of note was the Korean coach.  Throughout this whole ordeal, he was remarkably restrained and dignified in his protest.  Perhaps too much so.  I wonder what would have happened had he been from a more demonstrative country, such as Italy, France, or Russia.  One of those coaches would have likely been going apeshit from the moment the clock was first reset.  After all that transpired, he likely would have received a black card... but he also might have gotten some results.  In Major League Baseball, if a call got blown this badly, the manager would go onto the field with 100% certainty that he would not be leaving until he had been thrown out of the game.  The team would demand it.  The team would deserve it.  Though the Korean coach maintained his dignity in the face of adversity, perhaps this was a moment to put dignity aside and argue for justice the way only coaches can.

Unsurprisingly, both fencers lost in their subsequent bouts.  It can be tough to refocus after an episode like this.  Heidemann goes home with a silver to add to her gold from Beijing, and Shin goes home with fame, and more fans than she could have ever dreamed of.  If she capitalizes on this correctly, it might end up being better for her than had she actually won... though I doubt she's thinking about that right now.

So, that was the humiliation that was Olympic fencing today.  It certainly made the sport look bad on the world stage, but on the other hand, at least it got the sport some attention on the world stage.  Now when I tell people that I fence, instead of looking at me and doing the funny hand thing, they might just say "oh yeah, did you see that thing that happened with that fencer in the Olympics?"  And I'll say "yeah", and pretend that this was an anomaly, and not the kind of screwed-up refereeing that happens all this time in this god-forsaken sport.

Tune in tomorrow for men's foil.  There should be some very demonstrative Italians, and an outside shot at an American medal.

UPDATE 7/31: The more I think about this situation, the more it is apparent how badly the referee screwed up.  The fencers were completely ignoring her commands, and she knew it.  When the timer needed to be reset, it should have been obvious to everyone there (including the referee) that such a crude estimation was inadequate.  She knew things weren't being done properly, but she chose to proceed anyway, hoping that it wouldn't matter, and the bout would simply end in a second, and her actions (or lack thereof) would be inconsequential.  I think anyone who has ever poorly refereed any sport can relate.  We've all been there--at that point when it seems so much easier to just let things move forward instead of insuring the rules are enforced to the best of our abilities.  Then we just sit back and hope that the action on the field renders our decisions moot, or else we're going to get an earful.  That's the kind of thing you can get away with reffing intramural flag football, but in the Olympics--the most important fencing competition in the world--that is simply unacceptable.  She had an obligation to make sure all the rules were being enforced to the best of her ability, even if it meant holding up the action... even if everything was all going to be over in one second anyway.

*I've heard a rumor that there was yellow card awarded to Shin for an unspecified infraction, and that's why time had to be reset.  Cannot confirm.


  1. Thanks for a great article. I feel for Shin. She looks so lonely in one of the pictures you've posted that I wish I could just give her a big hug. Life could be so cruel sometimes.

  2. She certainly deserved silver or even gold. I would have definitely gone apeshit on that german girl for trying to shake my hand. She's a good sport. I admire her for that.

  3. I don't agree with you that letting the call stand was the proper thing to do.

    A judgment call is one thing, but a clock failure, or the obvious failure to start the clock - as evidenced by the clock going to zero during a pause - is not a judgment call, it's a referee error, a clear and unmistakeable referree error, on film.

    The bout committee most certainly could have ruled, as a matter of the rules, not as a matter of poor referee judgment - that the time had expired, and used the film evidence for that proof.

    It is also ridiculous that any team should have had to pay any monetary fee whatever to launch an appeal. This is the Olympics. Appeals are a matter of right, and should be provided as a matter of course. There is no right for the FIE or whomever was running the bout committee to charge a fee for dispensing the justice that is the fencers' as a matter of right.

    This was a complete travesty, and the end result was wrong too.

    Now, as to sportsmanship, I'm not as hard on the German competitor as others are. You fence according to the referee's rulings. There was a legitimate question of rules (which, however, only had one right answer). I wouldn't ask her to make way for the Korean once she had the ruling. But the ruling truly stunk. They need to clarify the rules on this point.

  4. The time to protest was before the last touch. Once that second was placed on the clock, however wrong it was, that became the new official bout time. If you're going to start going back and re-adding all the time from various touches, why only add the last three touches? Why not start from the beginning of overtime? Or the beginning of the entire bout? Timing imperfections happen all-too-frequently, but in order to allow any action to proceed, it is necessary to have some standard, and in this case, the standard is that once the following touch commences, the preceding time must be taken as given.

  5. I don't understand why the advantage would be given on a chance coin toss.

    Give the advantage to the most attacking fencer, possibly determined by one or more of:
    - who's furthest forward when the time expires;
    - or both being on their lines, who scored the previous single hit;
    - or that not determining it, who was furthest forward on the previous double hit.

    Give them an incentive for the behavior you want to see. Clearly giving the advantage someone who was already defendng just made them continue to defend.

  6. Dan, can you post some credentials?

    What you say makes sense, and I'd like to link to it. However, I can't go back with just "some guy said."