This is a departure from the usual subject matter of this blog, but one of the advantages of running my own blog is that I can write what I like on it. This post does have a mention of AutoCAD, but it’s so minor and marginal it’s probably not going to interest many of my usual readers.
Now the Olympics are over and a video has been made globally available, I’m going to discuss what happened in the Women’s Epee semi-final between South Korea’s Shin A-Lam and Germany’s Britta Heidemann. The image of Shin sitting disconsolate and alone on the piste, in white on a black background, is one of the iconic images of the London 2012 Olympics. It was replayed at the closing ceremony. Besides making for ‘good’ television, it’s one of the human stories that go to make the Games more than just a vehicle to sell junk food. I’m driven to write about this because I’ve seen a huge amount of complete rubbish written on this subject, mostly by people who have absolutely no idea of the subject about which they are ranting so angrily, but also by some fencers who should know better. I have seen my sport unjustly tainted by inaccurate reporting, demonstrably false accusations, defamatory and untrue statements made against honest fencers and officials, and because this is the Internet, a vast amount of illiterate ranting and ugly racism. This includes both ’joke’ racist trolling and the real thing, neither of which will be tolerated in comments on this blog. I hope that by delaying this post, most of the morons will have moved on and found something else with which to amuse themselves.
It’s difficult to avoid feeling sorry for Shin in her predicament and outrage at what appears to be a terrible injustice. However, I intend to examine what happened step-by-step and analyse it completely dispassionately, explaining the rules and procedures so they can hopefully be understood by non-fencers. Other than Shin and Heidemann, I will not be using the names of anyone involved, in an attempt to make this as clinical as I can. Where there were failings, I intend to clearly point them out. Equally, where there were not failings, I intend to point that out, too, even if it is contrary to popular belief.
I have no bias to declare here; as a British Australian I didn’t really care who won this bout. I do know and respect a coach who knows and respects Shin’s coach, but I’ve never met or seen anybody directly connected to these events. Fencing is a small world and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that I am connected to most of the Olympic field via only 2 or 3 degrees of separation.
This is a very long post. If you can’t be bothered reading it all, feel free to skip to the Mythbusting section. However, I’d appreciate it if you took the time to read all the relevant parts before commenting based on just a subset of my observations.
It’s ironic that an epee bout has been such a controversial event, because it’s generally considered the most straightforward of the three fencing weapons to referee, with the simplest rules. The fencers start in the centre of a 14 metre piste, behind en garde lines 4 m apart. The whole body is target area, and the first person to hit the other is awarded a point. After a point is scored, both fencers are returned to the en garde lines. If both fencers hit each other within 40 – 50 ms (1/25 to 1/20 of a second), they are both awarded a point and are still returned to the en garde lines.
There is an important and relevant exception to this general double-hit, both-get-a-point-and-return-to-the-middle rule, and that is when the scores are equal and the next hit would win the match. Under such circumstances, a double hit simply stops the bout. The scores do not advance and the fencers are restarted, positioned in basically the same locations they occupied before the hit. What do I mean by this? Well, here are the relevant rules (quoted here as an English translation of the canonical rules, which are in French):
t.17.4. When placed on guard during the bout, the distance between the two competitors must be such that, in the position ‘point in line’, the points of the two blades cannot make contact.
t.17.6. If no hit is awarded they are replaced in the position which they occupied when the bout was interrupted.
t.17.8. The competitors may not be replaced on guard, at their correct distance, in such a way as to place behind the rear line of the piste a fencer who was in front of that line when the bout was halted. If he already had one foot behind the rear line, he remains in that position.
t.17.11. The fencers must come on guard correctly and remain completely still until the command ‘Play!’ is given by the Referee.
t.24. When the order ‘Halt!’ is given ground gained is held until a hit has been given. When competitors are replaced on guard, each fencer should retire an equal distance in order to keep fencing distance.
t.25. However, if the bout has been stopped on account of corps à corps, the fencers are replaced on guard in such a position that the competitor who has sustained the corps à corps is at the place which he previously occupied; this also applies if his opponent has subjected him to a flèche attack, even without corps à corps.
t.27. Should a competitor cross the rear limit of the piste completely — i.e. with both feet — a hit will be scored against him.
To explain some of the fencing jargon here, the position ‘point in line’ is where each fencer stands and holds the sword out with a straight arm pointing horizontally at the other fencer. When fencers are started from any position other than the en garde lines, they should be far enough apart that they are both able to do this without the swords crossing. If a fencer feels that the opponent is too close, it is customary to stand point-in-line, at which the referee will expect the opponent to do likewise while the distance is adjusted accordingly. A corps à corps is when the fencers bump into each other, which isn’t a real issue here. A flèche attack is where one fencer takes a ‘running jump’ past the other. This will become relevant later on.
After the preliminaries are over, the fencers start behind their en garde lines, each 2 m from the centre of the piste. Fencing referees always use French at the top levels, so the Austrian referee (selected by computer randomly from a pool of referees from nations not taking part in the bout) calls to the fencers, “en garde” (get on your guard), “pret?” (are you ready?), and if nobody replies with “non” (no), the fencing starts with the referee’s call of “allez” (go/play/fence). If the referee needs to stop the action, she calls “halt”, pronounced in French with a silent ‘h’ and a short ‘a’. It is unfortunate that the words used to start and stop the bout both begin with an “al” sound, and it’s unfortunate that the word to start the action contains two syllables, but that’s what tradition has given us. It could happen that a referee calls en garde, pret, one or both fencers start early and she calls halt! rather than allez.
In this match, the first fencer to score 15 hits will win, or if nobody gets to 15, whoever scores the most hits within the time available. That time is three periods of three minutes, each separated by a one minute break. If scores are equal at the end, a further period of a maximum of one minute is fenced, at which point there will be a definite winner. There are no draws in fencing. There is no let’s-do-it-all-again option. So let’s have a look at how the bout panned out:
The bout starts normally enough with en garde, pret, allez and the fencers start moving. Around half a second later, there is a small beep that indicates that the clock has been started. Why doesn’t it start at the beginning of the referee’s “allez”? Because at this level, the referee’s duties are separated from that of the timekeeper. At the level I usually fence, the referee holds a remote control and can time the button press to coincide more closely with the spoken call, but at higher levels the referee is relieved of this burden to better concentrate on the fencing and make clearer hand signals to explain decisions to the audience. The down side to this is that there is always a delay between “al-” where the fencers start and “beep” when the clock starts. The delay varies depending on how well the timekeeper can hear the referee given the background noise, how long it takes them to hear the entire word “allez”, determine it’s not “halt” and press the start button. The reflexes of your average timekeeper are not quite as sharp as your average Olympic fencer, but this isn’t usually a significant problem because it’s the same for everybody and most bouts don’t go down to the last second. Fencers should expect every action to be timed from a point slightly after fencing actually starts, and it happened all the time to varying degrees during the London 2012 event.
Although it’s not obvious on the video, exactly one second after the timekeeper presses the button and about 1.5 seconds after the fencing starts, the clock clicks over from 3:00 to 2:59. For this period, the clock will be counting down using its internal resolution: 2:59.90, 2:59.80…2:59.10…2:59.01 – all of these will be displayed as 3:00. So the bout starts with no movement at all apparent on the clock for well over one full second after fencing actually starts. This will happen at the end too, but much more controversially.
During the first period, Heidemann scores 2 hits, then Shin gets one back to leave the score at 2-1. Towards end of the first period, both fencers back off, the referee calls halt and moves to the first one-minute break period with 6 seconds still to play. This is not actually permitted in the rules, but is generally accepted by convention; neither fencer is particularly interested in attacking and nobody complains about it.
No hit is scored for one full minute, which is one of the conditions that triggers a non-combativity rule that is designed to encourage fencers to actually fight each other rather than both waiting for the opponent to move; a real problem in epee. When both fencers back off shortly after, the referee calls halt with 1:52 remaining in the second period and moves on directly to the third period. This is done fully in accordance with the rules, so naturally nobody complains about it.
At 2:27 Heidemann attacks and Shin counter-attacks, winning a point to leave them at 2-2. Heidemann starts to get more attacking. At 1:53, double-hit, score 3-3. Fencers return to en garde lines in accordance with the rules. 1:33, another double, 4-4. On restart, Shin steps forward over en garde line as en garde is called, but steps back as referee calls pret. Referee ignores this minor infraction and allows play to continue. At 1:13, another double is scored, 5-5. Heidemann has often adjusted her mask during the bout, and at 0:30 waves to attract the attention of the referee who calls halt. Heidemann brushes hair back from her eyes. Fencers are allowed to do this sort of thing within reason. There is a rule that makes it a yellow card offence to have hair obscuring the target area in foil and sabre, or the fencer’s name in epee, and it’s also an offence if hair has to be adjusted during the bout to prevent this particular target/name obscuration from happening. However, there is no rule preventing a fencer from adjusting their hair to move it out of the way of their eyes so they can fence to the best of their ability.
Edit: a referee of greater experience and ability than myself has suggested that Heidemann could well have been given a yellow card for interrupting the bout without adequate justification.
The last 30 seconds pass without a hit. From 0:13, the referee could have called non-combativity which would have resulted in a final minute being fenced in its entirety, regardless of the score unless a fencer reached 15 hits. The referee has some discretion here, because the rule states the trigger for non-combativity as approximately one minute without a valid hit. Instead, she allows play to continue to the end. If she had called non-combativity, it would have removed one potential source of controversy. In a final minute triggered by non-combativity, double hits advance the score and fencers are returned to the en garde lines each time, meaning there is no grey area about where the fencers are supposed to start. This grey area becomes significant later on.
Edit: the same referee has informed me that the approximately one minute period must be continuous, and that the hair adjustment episode, justified or not, constituted an interruption that made the 1:13 period non-continuous.
However, non-combativity isn’t called this time. Therefore, as the last period finished normally with the scores equal, a sudden-death final minute is fenced, with the first single valid hit winning the bout. Double hits stop the bout but are otherwise ignored. But what happens if there is no single valid hit? Who wins then? Do they keep fencing indefinitely until someone wins? No. In situations like this, one fencer is randomly assigned priority at the start of the minute. It could be done with the toss of a coin but is now usually done electronically. What this means is that if the scores are still level at the end of the final minute, the fencer who was awarded priority is given a hit and wins the bout. In this case, priority was awarded to Shin. This means that if the entire final minute had passed without a valid single hit, Shin would have won the bout on what amounted to an electronic coin-toss. Is this fair? Yes. Those are the rules, all fencers enter the event knowing that that is what will happen, and both fencers had an equal chance of being placed in that situation. It is actually very common for a fencer with priority to lose the bout, and extremely rare for the full minute to be fenced. It’s simply a mechanism for forcing the issue and ensuring that there’s at least one fencer with a must-score attitude.
At 0:24 Heidemann performs a flèche attack when Shin has her back foot on the back line, resulting in a double hit. According to rule t.25, Shin is supposed to stay where she is, but instead Shin walks forward and places herself further up the piste. This “stealing” of ground shouldn’t occur, but it’s not usually considered an infringement worthy of penalty unless the referee points it out and the fencer refuses to place herself as requested. The referee fails to do anything about this particular issue and Heidemann does not object. She places herself at the correct distance away from Shin’s new position. When the bout is restarted Shin’s position is such that she has gained 1.65 m. This gives Shin a significant advantage, because if both of her feet move behind the line, a hit is awarded against her and she will lose the bout. This may seem a minor detail to a non-fencer, but it’s not. Being placed on the back line makes it difficult to use distance to time your counter-attacks, a real problem for an epeeist trying to avoid receiving a single hit.
How do I know the distance Shin gained to within about 50 mm? That’s where AutoCAD comes in. I did screen captures of the video footage, paused at the time the hit was scored and the time fencing resumed. In AutoCAD, I attached the images and was then easily able to compare the distance between the fencers’ feet and the back line with known distances (e.g. the back 2 m of the piste). There are probably better tools for the job, but AutoCAD was handy, familiar, and good enough. My job was made easier by the fact that both fencers chose to position themselves on the far side of the piste, right next to the line, making it easy to measure. Strictly, this is against the rules; fencers should position themselves in the centre of the width of the piste. However, referees frequently allow this to happen unless somebody is practically off the side of the piste or a fencer complains. This kind of leeway in minor matters is often shown by referees, as it was in this case throughout the bout.
Back to the bout; at 0:15 Heidemann flèche attacks again, resulting in another double hit. This time, Shin’s back foot is 0.45 m behind the back line when she is hit. The referee checks the video replay to see if Shin went entirely behind the back line, which she did, but not until after the hit, so it didn’t matter. Despite the referee knowing from the replay exactly where Shin should be placed, she allows Shin to walk up the piste again. Before allowing fencing to start, the referee says “distance, both of you” (in French), because the fencers are slightly too close to each other. At this instruction, Heidemann shuffles back slightly but Shin shuffles forwards he same amount and is allowed to start with her back foot is 0.7 m in front of the line. Thus, she gains another 1.15 m.
At 0:09, same again. Heidemann flèches, double hit, Shin moves from 0.7 m behind to 0.65 m in front of the line, a further gain of 1.35 m.
At 0:05, another Heidemann flèche, another double hit. Shin has been pushed back so far that only the front half of her front foot is on the piste and her back foot is 0.6 m behind. That is, she’s about 0.1 m from going over the line completely and losing the bout. She then moves forward so her back foot is 0.4 m in front of the line, a gain of 1.0 m. Before fencing resumes, the referee calls the fencers to ensure adequate distance. Heidemann starts moving forward before pret is called and Shin complains (rightly) about Heidemann being too close, and she moves back slightly. During this distance reset, Shin gains another 0.2 m, giving her a total of 1.2 m advantage this time round. The distance is still slightly too close when fencing resumes, but the referee allows play to continue. Nobody complains about this.
At 0:04, another Heidemann flèche, another double hit, Shin does the forward walk thing again and moves her back foot from 0.5 m behind to 1.1 m in front, gaining another 1.6 m. The distance at resumption is still slightly too close, but nobody complains.
The magic second begins
After 3 more seconds, at 0:01 another Heidemann flèche results in another double hit. Shin moves her back foot from 0.7 behind to 0.1 in front in preparation for the last second’s play. The distance between the fencers looks too close, so the referee calls for distance again from both fencers. Following this, Shin moves her back foot to 0.1 m behind the line, giving a net gain of 0.6 m this time.
The distance still looks too close based on how close the swords are to each other, but Heidemann is leaning crouched forward which would make the distance look closer than it really is. If both fencers had stood up and presented a point-in-line position to check that the swords could not touch, they may have been not much closer, if any closer at all, than the distance required by the rules. If you doubt this, try it at home with a weapon. Stand en garde facing a wall, then present point-in-line and shuffle forwards until the tip of the weapon touches the wall. Without moving your feet, bend your arm to return to an en garde position. The tip’s not really that far away from the wall, is it? Lean forward as Heidemann did, and you will find that you can easily touch the wall with your weapon, even with a very bent arm.
At 0:01, Heidemann anticipates the call of allez and starts early, with another double hit as the result. If the timekeeper managed to start the clock at all, there is only a tiny fraction of a second (maybe 0.1 s) between the time starting when the timekeeper presses the button and stopping automatically when Heidemann’s point is depressed. As a result, the time still shows 0:01. As a sabre fencer, I assure you that it is not that unusual for an action to be completed within a second; I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before where a fast fencer and a slow timekeeper are involved. The referee could have given Heidemann a yellow card for starting early. However, this would be fairly harsh; a little leeway is usually allowed for this minor infraction, as it was for Shin in the third period. Had a yellow card been awarded, it would have had no immediate direct effect on the bout, but a subsequent infringement of any type would result in a hit against and thus loss of the bout. It would therefore have made Heidemann very wary of starting early again.
When coming en garde this time, Shin resumes in the correct position and Heidemann attempts to start too close. On Shin’s legitimate objection, the referee calls Heidemann to yield distance. She does, but then regains it and a little more. The referee has to call for distance again, and Heidemann is in danger of receiving a yellow card for failing to obey the referee’s instructions. Despite these calls, fencing is allowed to resume with the fencers too close. Again, the situation isn’t as bad as it looks because of Heidemann’s lean forward making the swords look closer than they would be if performing a stand-up point-in-line distance test, but it’s fair to say that the referee did not adequately enforce the rules at this point. This time, it’s to Heidemann’s advantage, unlike the multiple previous times where it was to Shin’s.
At 0:01 again, there is no early start by Heidemann but again, a double hit occurs with a small fraction of a second between the timekeeper’s button-press and the hit landing, and thus the time is still registering 0:01. Shin complains to her coach (apparently about the time not counting down) and walks up the piste again. Some commentators have stated that the timekeeper didn’t start the clock at all during the course of this hit, but I can clearly hear two beeps for the start and the hit, much less than half a second apart. While play is halted, the referee asks the timekeeper, “Time?”, presumably to check that things are working properly. At this, the timekeeper apparently presses the start button accidentally (or mistakenly believing that the referee wished the time to be run down), resulting in it going down to 0:00. It takes about half a second to do this, in hindsight giving some idea of the time that was remaining. Some of the crowd cheered, thinking the match was over. However, the time can’t count down when there is no fencing happening, so there was obviously a fault. Where there is a timekeeping fault, the rules clearly say the referee must estimate the remaining time and have the time set accordingly:
t.32.1. At the expiry of the regulation fencing time, if the clock is linked to the scoring apparatus (obligatory standard for finals of official FIE competitions), it must set off automatically a loud audible signal, and automatically cut off the scoring apparatus, without cancelling hits registered before the disconnection. The bout stops with the audible signal.
t.32.3. 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.
She asks for it to be set to one second, which is what the clock said before the error, and calls the fencers en garde. Given that fencing clocks use a visible resolution of one second, this is the only action the referee could reasonably take. It might be that the clock actually had only a hundredth of a second left on it internally, but there’s no way of anyone knowing. She couldn’t estimate the time at 0:00 because there was clearly some time left on the clock when the error occurred; it said 0:01. While the clock is being set back to 0:01, the Korean coach comes out of his technical area to complain about the point that three actions could not be launched without the clock counting down from 0:01. He’s not allowed to come out of his “box”, or appeal any decision (this is the fencer’s responsibility), or shout at the officials. He could well have received a yellow card for doing any of the above. He is apparently a usually very calm, polite gentleman and he must have understandably felt very strongly about the situation to react in this way.
At this point, it’s important to note that it is traditional in fencing (as in most other sports) for all decisions of the referee to be final, and this is largely still the case today. Some decisions can now be appealed, but options are limited. You can appeal on the referee’s interpretation of the rules, but not on a finding of fact by the referee, except in a limited number of video appeals where that facility is available (as it was here). Also, fencing has only one undo step. You can only appeal the previous hit. If you realise that your weapon hasn’t been working all bout when you are 10-0 down, you can ask for it to be tested and you might get the last hit annulled, but 9-0 down is the best you can hope for. As for the time you spent fencing with a useless weapon before that last hit, forget it. That time is gone, and not subject to appeal or adjustment. This may seem harsh and unfair, but it’s really the only way it could be. Trying to unravel a bout beyond a single hit is just too difficult to codify and apply practically, given all of the possible permutations. Here are the relevant rules:
t.122.1. No appeal can be made against the decision of the Referee regarding a point of fact.
t.122.2. If a fencer infringes this principle, casting doubt on the decision of the Referee on a point of fact during the bout, he will be penalised according to the rules. But if the Referee is ignorant of or misunderstands a definite rule, or applies it in a manner contrary to the Rules, an appeal on this matter may be entertained.
t.122.3. This appeal must be made:
a) in individual events, by the fencer,
b) in team events, by the fencer or the team captain,
it should be made courteously but without formality, and should be made verbally to the Referee immediately and before any decision is made regarding a subsequent hit.
Back to the action. At this stage, the fencers are ready to fence the final second. It may be that the time should really have been 0:00.01 rather than 0:01.00, but the latter is the official time at this point. Shin has done a bit of querying and her coach has made his views known, but the coach is not entitled to officially appeal and Shin not done so. Even if an appeal had been made, it is almost certain to have been rejected. The official time is the official time and is not subject to appeal. The referee’s setting of the clock to her estimate of 0:01 was done exactly according to the rules, and is the best estimate that could be made given the one-second resolution that is displayed and can be set on the timing mechanism. An attempt to set a time of some part of a second might possibly have been made by setting to one second and performing a quick start/stop, but it would have been without precedent and fraught with difficulty. An appeal that queried the setting of the time to 0:01.00 would have been rejected on the basis that it related to a matter of fact as determined by the referee. Such an appeal would have possibly resulted in a yellow card for Shin, not that it would have mattered at this late stage. So nothing up to this point has been appealed, and once there’s another hit, nothing that has happened up to this stage can possibly be appealed, regardless of the circumstances.
The referee insists that a reluctant Shin put on her mask and fence the final second that is now on the clock. The referee again calls for distance specifically from Heidemann, although it is Shin who has moved forward during the commotion, gaining another 0.7 m. Again, the fencers are still allowed to start with a distance that is a bit too close, but not as bad as it looks due to Heidemann’s lean. I estimate that the fencers are perhaps 0.5 m too close. Certainly, the distance that the fencers are allowed to start at is inadequate. Equally certainly, the distance is inadequate not because of Heidemann encroaching ahead of where she should, but primarily because of Shin’s walk up the piste.
Up to this point, Shin’s total gain from walking up the piste after each double hit amounts to over 8 m. The referee has erred in allowing this to happen, thereby handing Shin an enormous advantage. It is extremely likely (although not completely certain) that if the referee had set the fencers correctly each time, Shin would have lost by either being driven off the back of the piste, or found herself unable to use backward motion to make effective counter-attacks. This would have happened a long time before the magic everlasting second became an issue. Alternatively, the referee could have warned Shin the first time she did it, issued a yellow card the second time and a red card the third time, handing Heidemann the bout. This could also have happened long before time became a source of controversy. The last second has understandably attracted a lot of attention, but nobody seems to care about the 6 seconds that weren’t fenced in the first period, the 113 seconds that weren’t fenced in the second period, or the 13 seconds that could have been chopped off the third period for non-combativity, or the fact that doing so would have completely changed the situation regarding distance, because each double hit would have returned the fencers to the en garde lines.
The final hit
So the fencers are set en garde (too close due to Shin’s advancement and the referee’s failure to disallow it) and with a full second on the clock (which is more than there should have been due to the timekeeper’s error). On allez, Heidemann launches forward, beats Shin’s blade and hits her, with the clock still on 0:01. Let’s examine that last sub-second in detail.
First, the referee starts with the words en garde, pret and allez as usual, with the same short period of time between pret and allez that she had been using on previous occasions. This predictability allowed Heidemann to time her start of movement to coincide with the start of the word allez, which she did perfectly. As she launches herself forward, the referee’s word allez is completed, and the timekeeper reacts pretty quickly and presses the start button. You can hear the beep just before Heidemann beats the blade, about 0.3 s after allez starts and only 0.1 s after allez ends. The hit lands shortly after (about 0.7 s later). If the timekeeper was (as some have suggested) deliberately trying to give Heidemann time to score a hit by delaying the start button, they made a really bad job of it. In this particular instance, the timekeeper reacted as quickly as it is reasonable to expect.
By the rules of the sport, Heidemann has now won the bout. Heidemann hit Shin one more time than she was herself hit, and this was done within the time allowed as measured on the official equipment. What would normally happen now is that the referee checks the video replay, orders the fencers to the en garde lines, indicates the winner and observes the fencers saluting each other, the referee and the crowd, before shaking hands and retiring to prepare for the next bout. Instead, what happens is that all Hell breaks loose.
This post is already enormous, so I don’t intend to go over the appeal process or the sit-on-the-piste thing in any detail. I will, however, point out that there was really never any hope for any appeal. Remember, nothing prior to the last hit is subject to appeal. Taking that last hit, there was a second left on the official clock at the start, and Heidemann scored a valid hit within that second and before the buzzer loud signalled the end of the bout and the scoring mechanism was disconnected. You can’t undo the fact of that hit just because you don’t like the result, or because it’s heartbreaking for the defeated athlete. However, here are some relevant rules about the appeal process, if you’re interested:
t.84. By the mere fact of entering a fencing competition, the fencers pledge their honour to observe the Rules and the decisions of the officials, to be respectful towards the referees and judges and scrupulously to obey the orders and injunctions of the Referee.
t.95.1. Whatever juridical authority has taken a decision, this decision may be subject to an appeal to a higher juridical authority, but only to one such appeal.
t.95.2. No decision on a question of fact can be the subject of an appeal.
t.95.3. An appeal against a decision only suspends that decision when it can be judged immediately.
t.95.4. Every appeal must be accompanied by the deposit of a guaranty of US$80, or its equivalent in another currency; this sum may be confiscated for the benefit of the FIE if the appeal is rejected on the grounds that it is ‘frivolous’; this decision will be taken by the juridical authority responsible for hearing the appeal. However, appeals against the decisions of the Referee do not require the deposit of the guaranty mentioned above.
Despite the one-appeal rule above, there were actually two appeals entered. The first was an immediate verbal appeal of the referee’s decision (contrary to the rules again, by the coach rather than the fencer), where a gaggle of officials from several different countries spent some time examining the video evidence and discussing the matter. The Technical Director then informed the referee that her decision was upheld, and she awarded the bout to Heidemann who rushed over to shake Shin’s hand as required by the rules, then left to prepare for her next bout. A second, written appeal was then entered, accepted and discussed for even more time while Shin sat alone in tears. The appeal was eventually dismissed, Shin was informed and escorted from the piste by FIE officials.
Addressing various specific complaints that I’ve seen, let’s take them one at a time to see what’s true and what’s false.
- Timekeeping in fencing has a resolution of one second, which can lead to problems such as this – confirmed. But this has always been the case and it’s the same for all fencers. Problems like this are actually extremely rare; when they occur fencers might feel hard done by, but it’s something we accept and live with. That said, I would not be surprised to see a change to fencing timekeeping at the top level as a result of the publicity from this incident, maybe changing to a resolution of 0.1 seconds in the last 10 seconds of the bout.
- The referee did not place the fencers correctly, allowing Heidemann to start too close on the last two hits – confirmed. This was indeed a refereeing error; allez should not have been called while they were that close. But it’s important to note that Shin was largely responsible for this because she advanced up the piste and placed herself in that position. It’s also important to note that at no point did either fencer stand point-in-line prior to fencing to ensure the distance was set correctly.
- Shin advanced up the piste after each double hit but one, gaining vital ground, allowing her to better counter-attack and stay in the bout – confirmed. According to my calculations, she gained over 8 m in this way.
- The referee demonstrated anti-Shin bias in her placement of the fencers – busted. While it’s true that the referee erred in allowing the fencers to start too close, Shin had placed herself in that position. She could have held out a point-in-line and/or backed off to the correct position in order to ensure there was adequate distance. The idea of anti-Shin bias by the referee is ridiculous, given that she allowed Shin to illicitly gain over half a piste during the final hits.
- The timekeeper hit the start button a fraction of a second after allez was called, resulting in Heidemann having more time to score the winning hit – confirmed. But this needs to be placed in context. The timekeeper always hits the start button a short time after allez is called, it’s just the degree that varies. The delay that occurred on the winning hit was consistent with what had been occuring earlier in the bout, and indeed in other bouts in the competition. It is not reasonable to expect a timekeeper to react significantly faster than they did on the winning hit.
- It’s impossible to score two hits without the clock being seen to count down at least a second – busted. We’re talking about Olympic fencers here, with fast muscles and faster reflexes. The tip of a fencing weapon is said to be the fastest non-ballistic object in sport. Have a look at some of the Olympic sabre bouts and see how much the clock winds down after a few straight attacks from a full 4 m apart. At a much lower level than this, I’ve seen a 5-hit sabre bout decided in 7 seconds, and that’s with the referee doing the timekeeping and thereby avoiding the delays you tend to get with a separate timekeeper.
- The timekeeper failed to hit the start button at all during the penultimate hit – busted. It is possible to make out a clear start beep during this action, but it’s only just before the beep for the hit.
- The timekeeper hit the start button while fencing was halted before the last hit, allowing the clock to move from 0:01 to 0:00. This resulted in the clock being reset to 0:01 and Heidemann having a full second to score the winning hit – confirmed. This was indeed an error, and it had a significant effect on the outcome. But it’s no indication of bias. The timekeeper (who I understand to be a British adult fencing volunteer) is unlikely to have had any desire to see any particular fencer win this bout. Fencers generally have an extremely well-developed sense of fair play, so it’s a highly insulting accusation to make. However, if you assume that there was pro-Heidemann bias, doing this deliberately would have been an extremely risky strategy. Not only was the action extremely exposed, there was a significant risk that the time of 0:00 would have been accepted by the referee as the official time, with Shin being declared the winner.
- The referee erred in having the time set to 0:01 following this timekeeping error – busted. The rules are explicit about what to do under these circumstances, and the referee followed them in the only way open to her.
- Heidemann acted ungraciously in celebrating her victory – busted. Nobody who has watched more than a couple of fencing matches could believe this. It’s always unfortunate for the fencer who doesn’t win, but the nature of the sport is such that each bout always has a winner and a loser. Celebrating an important fencing victory with exhuberance is totally normal. Not celebrating a narrow victory to win a place in the Olympic final would have been totally bizarre.
- Shin received a yellow card during the bout – busted. I have seen several statements to the effect that Shin already had a yellow card and therefore may have felt reluctant to argue with the referee about Heidemann’s distance. This is false. Shin received a yellow card only at the very end of her long wait on the piste, well after the bout was over. What appears to be confusing some observers is that the video shows a patch of yellow next to Shin’s name that appeared between the third period and the final minute. This was there to indicate that she had priority, not to indicate that she had a yellow card.
- The clock was reset to 0:01 because Shin committed an infringement – busted. I have seen claims that the FIE claimed in an official statement that the clock was reset from 0:00 to 0:01 because of a yellow card infringement by Shin. This is one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen claimed. First, the video makes clear that there was no infringement at that point (at least, not one noticed or addressed by the referee). Even if there had been an infringement, there is no provision in the rules for adjusting the clock because of any infringement. There is no such thing as a “penalty second” in fencing. It didn’t happen, and couldn’t have happened.
- The clock displays 0:01 when the time is anything from 0:01.99 to 0:00.01 seconds, so there was practically 2 seconds in which to score the last hit – busted. Watch the videos of this and other Olympic bouts and see what the clock does when it’s moving freely (not interrupted by hits). It doesn’t take 2 seconds to move from 0:01 to 0:00. A period starts at 3:00 and moves to 2:59 one second later, not instantly. Moving from 0:02 to 0:01 takes one second. Moving from 0:01 to 0:00 takes one second, too.
- The clock gets reset to a whole second every time a hit is scored – busted. Heidemann has been quoted as stating this, but it’s not correct. Again, watch other videos and see what the clock does. Sometimes the clock ticks down practically instantly after the start beep is heard, while on other occasions it takes nearly a full second, depending on how much of a full second was left internally on the clock. The most obvious proof of this is when the timekeeping error is made before the final hit. You can hear the start beep when the button is pressed and the end beep when the time reaches 0:00, and there is clearly less than a full second between the beeps.
- The FIE reprehensibly demanded money from the Koreans before the appeal, proving that it is corrupt, biased and evil - busted. Some people got pointlessly very worked up about this. This is all above board; it’s written into the rules (see above) and applies to everybody. An $80 deposit is required along with a written appeal. As with other sports, an appeal deposit is there in the established procedures to discourage frivolous appeals. The sum is insignificant in the scheme of things (my last competition’s entry fee was about triple that), and my understanding is that it is almost always refunded anyway. Move along please, nothing to see here.
- Shin staged a sit-down protest on the piste – busted. Sit-down protests are not allowed in fencing. Any kind of protest outside the official processes (e.g. throwing your equipment around) is generally considered an offence against sportsmanship and subject to a black card. Even refusing to salute correctly is a black card offence, which means exclusion from the whole competition and a 2 month ban. Shin stayed on the piste because she believed, or was told, that she had to remain on the piste while the post-match appeal was being heard. It is true that both fencers staying on the piste is a requirement during an appeal on the piste. However, from my reading of the rules it does not appear to be a requirement during determination of a written appeal.
- Shin was rudely manhandled off the piste by security goons - busted. Once Shin was informed of the outcome of the official appeal, she had no place on the piste and was under an obligation to leave when requested. There were further bouts to be fenced, including her own bronze medal bout to be held 10 minutes later. If she didn’t leave at this point, she was in grave danger of receiving a black card and losing the right to fight for a medal at all. It was in everybody’s interests, particularly hers, that this didn’t happen. Rather than waving a black card in her face and calling security, a senior FIE official and his colleague put their arms around her and gently encouraged her reluctant departure. A yellow card was discreetly shown at this point; it’s not clear if this was for her initial reluctance to leave or as an automatic procedural result of the failed appeal. It is unfortunate from the point of appearances that the gentlemen in question are significantly larger than Shin, but other than that it is difficult to think how this could have been handled more gently.
- The FIE should have just made the fencers re-fence the final minute or even the whole bout – busted. Not only is there no provision for doing this within the rules, it’s also an illogical suggestion. People who are outraged about Shin having to hold on for a possible extra second or so are suggesting that she should do so for another whole minute, or up to ten minutes? How does that make sense?
- Shin “deserved to win” – busted. I’m moving away from a purely objective viewpoint by addressing this point, but to me, the fencer who scores the most hits deserves to win. That would be Heidemann, then. If Shin had survived that final everlasting second, she would have been awarded the bout thanks to random selection rather than scoring the most hits. While Shin was undoubtedly disadvantaged by timekeeping errors, she was only still in the bout at that time because Heidemann had already been significantly disadvantaged by refereeing errors.
- This is the worst example of timekeeping ever seen in top level fencing – busted. Enjoy this video of the second period of the 2009 Veteran (70+) World Championship Sabre Final. Keep an eye on the clock between hits.
There were undoubtedly mistakes made in both refereeing and timekeeping in this bout. However, they were relatively minor mistakes compared with those that are made on a regular basis by all fencing referees, myself included. It’s not at all uncommon for a hit to be given the wrong way in foil or sabre. It happens, and we live with it, because mistakes are made in all sports where human judgement is involved. Despite a lot of Internet ranting, there is no real evidence of any anti-Shin bias. When examined objectively, the sum of the incorrect and dubious refereeing actions in this bout show that a significant net benefit was provided to Shin.
Although I cannot aspire to the level of excellence and dedication demonstrated by Olympic fencers, I know from recent personal experience that it’s very unpleasant to lose an important bout. It’s heart-rending to lose that bout by the slimmest of margins. It induces not just anguish, but also anger, when you lose that bout because of what you believe to be refereeing, timekeeping or scoring errors. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. So I can very much empathise with Shin A-Lam in her predicament. But was she robbed of an Olympic medal? No, not really. Not when you examine all the facts.