Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Olympic Fencing Controversy

I wasn't going to write about this, but Laura McLay nagged me into it. I fenced at the collegiate level 40 years ago (if you can call sitting on Princeton's bench waiting for garbage time "fencing"). I have no experience at the national or international level, let alone at the Olympic level, and the rules have changed drastically in the past 40 years. So take the following with a substantial grain of salt.

Before launching into the controversy, I'll attempt a quick primer, sticking to the bare minimum.  (Trust me, there's lots more detail I could drag in.)  Fencing (more precisely, Olympic fencing, as opposed to the medieval style you might see at Renaissance reenactments or Asian styles such as kendo or kumdo) involves a choice of three weapons.
  • The épée, based on dueling swords, is a straight weapon with a point but no edge. If you see two fencers in a movie hacking away at each other with épées, they're wasting their energy (probably because the stunt director thought it would make the action look more exciting). With the épée, it's stab or go home. Any part of your opponent's anatomy is a valid target for the épée. A duel is no time to get finicky. (In real life you try not to hit your own anatomy ... which actually applies to all three weapons ... but strangely enough in Olympic-style épée fencing, deliberately hitting your own foot sometimes gets you an undeserved touch.)
  • The foil is based on a practice weapon used in earlier times before graduating to the real thing (the épée). The foil is also a point-only weapon, but with a lighter, more flexible blade and a smaller bell (hand guard). Valid target area for the foil is the torso (including the groin area in the front but cut off at the waist in the back). Historically, the target area limitation was probably done in an attempt to encourage students to aim before they poked.
  • The sabre is based on a cavalry sword, and scores with edges (the full bottom edge and I think about a third of the top edge) and the point. With the sabre, you can both stab and cut. Valid target area is everything above the waist except the hands and the back of the head. The sabre was often used against mounted opponents, and it was considered rude to wound the opponent's horse, hence the emphasis on striking above the waist.
Of course, in sporting competitions the weapons do not literally have points (they have buttons at their tips) nor sharpened edges. Scoring is done electronically, with the weapons electrified and with foil and sabre fencers wearing lamé jackets with wires woven into them. In my day, each fencer trailed a rather bulky cable attached to a reel; today fencers connect to the scoring apparatus wirelessly.

In the Olympics, individual bouts are staged in three three-minute rounds with one minute rest between rounds. A bout ends immediately when one fencer reaches 15 touches (points). If time runs out before either fencer reaches 15, the fencer ahead at the end of the bout wins. Here comes a rule I dislike (and a factor in the controversy): if time runs out with the fencers tied, a coin toss gives one fencer "priority". The fencers then fence for one additional minute, or until the tie is broken, whichever occurs first. If still tied after one minute, the winner of the coin toss wins the bout. (And you thought penalty kicks in soccer were bad!) When I fenced in college, if a bout was tied at the end of regulation time (which admittedly was much shorter then), it continued until the tie was broken or the universe suffered heat death, whichever came first.

Bouts are officiated by a referee (or, in my day, "director"), with assistance from a scorekeeper and a timekeeper, and possibly by side judges (whose main job, in épée, is to tell whether a fencer accidentally or deliberately stabbed the floor). In foil and sabre, simultaneous touches cannot both score; if the apparatus signals hits by both fencers that are simultaneous (to within a specified tolerance), the referee determines who had priority or "right of way" and awards the touch to that fencer. To make a long and complicated explanation short and sloppy, the fencer who initiates the attack has priority until either he/she misses or the other fencer successfully deflects the attach and counterattacks. With épée, however, there is no concept of right of way; if both fencers strike simultaneously, both score a touch.

At the 2012 London Olympics, a semifinal bout in women's épée turned into a circus. South Korean Shin A-lam and German Britta Heidemann were tied 5-5 at the end of regulation. Shin won the coin toss and was given priority, meaning that Heidemann needed to break the tie in her favor within one minute of fencing time to advance. With one second left in overtime, the score was still tied.

At this point, news reports vary widely (and some if not all are pretty clearly inaccurate on at least a few details). There may have been a "clock malfunction" that gave Heidemann an extra chance to score. Some reports claimed the clock was "stuck". Since I'm pretty sure they use electronic timers, a more likely explanation is that the timekeeper failed to start the clock promptly. Some reports said that the clock ran down to zero and was reset to one second. One report thought that was because the clock was running when the action was stopped (after not running when the fencers were actually fencing). Another thought this might have been due to Shin receiving a yellow card (warning) for something. Various minor infractions, including stepping off the side of the strip, can result in a warning. The reports do seem to agree that, in that final "one second", Shin and Heidemann managed to score two simultaneous touches (which did not count, since they did not break the tie) before Heidemann scored the ostensible winner.

The Korean delegation protested, and things went from bad to worse. Partly due to a lack of clarity on the part of the officials about what to do, partly due to the fact that Olympic protests require a cash appeal fee to paid on the spot, it took at least a half hour to sort out the appeal. This leads to another rule issue and some more bad reporting (or at least a bad choice of a headline): "Fencer Shin A-Lam stages dramatic sit-down protest after losing controversial semi-final" (the Telegraph). Shin did not sit down on the piste (strip) as part of a "sit-down protest"; she sat there because a rule requires fencers to remain on the strip while a protest is being adjudicated. (The Telegraph acknowledged this in the body of the article.) By rule, leaving the strip would signal acceptance of the decision. Shin could have remained standing, but one can hardly fault her for sitting, particularly as she was busy crying at the time.

The rule is designed for relatively minor protests, where a referee may go to  video replay for a quick look before deciding if, say, a touch was on the opponents foot (valid) or on the floor (not valid). Given how long it took to round up all the clowns and stuff them back in the clown car, the rule should have been waived here. That, of course, assumes that (a) the rule can be waived and (b) someone could have determined that it could be waived without another hour of consultations. I really don't think the stay-on-the-strip rule was intended for appeals this lengthy. Apparently officials did persuade Shin to leave the strip after half an hour; it is unclear from the reporting whether the appeal had been denied by then or whether the stay-put rule was being waived.

Adding injury to injury, Shin was forced to fence the bronze medal bout (which had been delayed by the protest) within something like fifteen minutes of when she left the strip. That's not much time to regain your composure and get loose again. She lost the second bout and came away with no medal. (FIE, the governing body, apparently tried to give her a made-up consolation medal, which she turned down.)

Without being an eyewitness, and particularly given the variance of the reporting, it is hard to tell exactly what happened, what went wrong, and what level of injustice was done here. One thing is clear, though. In the FIE's competition rules (English language version, PDF), rule t.32.3 seems unambiguous:
Should there be a failure of the clock or an error by the time-keeper, the Referee must himself estimate how much fencing time is left.
Since three touches in a one second time period would seem to require shifting the bout to the event horizon of a black hole,  I'm pretty sure the referee could, and should, have called the bout done before Heidemann's winning touch. That would still have not been satisfactory to me -- Shin would have won by virtue of that stupid coin toss, rather than by out-fencing Heidemann in overtime -- but it would at least have been consistent with the rules (and possibly less dramatic).

This isn't the first Olympic clock controversy (see, for instance USA-USSR basketball, 1972 ... grump, grump, grump) and likely won't be the last.


  1. Hi Paul,

    one minor correction: the name is Britta Hei*de*mann, see for example
    I watched this live on german TV.
    My takeaway was, that the clock counted only seconds (integer valued ones).
    So if the time that passes is below a full second, the clock starts counting again at the same second. If this is the case, start counting seconds in doubles ;)

    1. Christian,

      Thanks for pointing out the spelling error, which I have fixed. (I copied her name from a news report and pasted it in, and apparently I was insufficiently selective as to which report to use.)

      Your explanation about the integer domain for the time makes sense. Since you watched, did it seem to you that the two double touches and the final touch for Heidemann were all scored in under a second from the "allez" command? I know a touch can be scored quickly, but usually there's at least a little footwork and jockeying, and maybe an attempted parry/disengage involved. Three flurries that each last less than a second is possible but seems a bit unlikely (unless Shin stood flat-footed).

    2. A very low quality recording of the German TV broadcast/commentary: [clock shows 0:00 at 3m02s - when another, this time: final, double touches happened; but: since the acoustic signal - indicating the duel's end - didn't raise, the referees set the clock back to 0:01]

  2. Another view from someone in the crowd

    1. Thanks! This view is pretty clear and shows the scoreboard and the referee. The woman who's voice you hear on the video makes a key observation: when they reset the clock to 0:01, it put a full second back. The two previous attacks by Heidemann could possibly not have totaled one second, but certainly there should be just a fraction of a second left.

      I think the full second is critical. Heidemann's two previous attempts (which resulted in double touches) were straight attacks. Her winning attack looked like a beat (or attempted beat) followed by a disengage. Her point went low and then came back up for the touch. That's slower than a straight lunge. I don't know if a straight lunge (or fleche) would have fit within the fraction of a second left after the two previous double touches, but the actual winning technique would have been harder pressed to fit in.

      Shin could have avoided this, though, had she not let herself get backed up. The shaded area she's standing in is a warning zone. If Shin crosses the back line with both feet, it is scored as a touch for Heidemann. Had Shin been aggressive enough to buy some real estate, she could have eaten up the last second with a controlled retreat.

      The video also illustrates something one commenter mentioned. At least once, it looks as if the fencers start with the weapons crossed, which I believe is too close. Proximity clearly benefits Heidemann in this situation. Once or twice during stoppages you can see the referee motioning the fencers to move apart. Shin needs to inch forward if possible to lessen the risk of stepping out; Heidemann wants to inch forward to get within range for a quick attack. Overall, I think Heidemann gained the advantage, although the final action seemed to start from an appropriate separation.

      It also looked to me that, on one of the double touches, Heidemann might have launched a little early. I'm guessing maybe that's a yellow card offense, but I'm not sure. When I fenced, I had the reaction time of a tortoise, so jumping too soon was not a problem for me. (I now have the reaction time of an arthritic tortoise.)

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