Category Archives: Fencing

Olympic Fencing

Fairness does not exist. Complaining that life isn’t fair is like complaining that the sun doesn’t love you or that Raz Al Ghul’s ninja society shouldn’t engage in vigilante murder: such statements are nonsensical and semantically meaningless. Fairness is a concept that exists in the mind and not in nature. That’s why sports are awesome: they are a bastion of fairness in this cold, cruel world, an opportunity for people to compete within some evolving set of rules ideally designed to eliminate injustice and allow talent to determine the winner- unlike real life. Almost to the exclusion of every other aspect of reality, sportsmanship involves a code of the psychic concept of fairness, and sports become heartbreaking when they break this code, which may be why many prefer the underdog.

I was just in London for the Olympics and watched some foil fencing. In Iceland, I heard about the Shin epee controversy, and I thought, “Epee controversy? That sounds like an oxymoron.”

For the non-fencers out there, epee is the fencing weapon that has the least room for referee interference, involves the most bouncing and simultaneous touches, and is by far the most boring to watch. It is probably the most “fair” of all the weapons, which is part of why this controversy is so surprising and infuriating. In foil and sabre, if both fencers hit something and both lights go off, then the director has to use the rules of “right of way” to decide whose light to listen to. In foil and sabre, there are pretty subjective ranges for the different aspects of right of way, but in epee there is no concept of right of way. In contrast to foil and sabre, if both epeeists hit something and both lights go off, both of them get a point and we move on with our lives. All the epee director has to do is make sure everyone stands where they’re supposed to stand, start and stop fencing when they’re supposed to start and stop, give out cards if people punch each other or do something card-worthy, and make sure everyone listens to the machine.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the video of the Shin Heidelman epee bout or this video showing the extra second lasting for longer than 1 second. I could believe even less the news articles and ensuing aftermath. The whole event offends me on multiple levels.

First, it offends me technologically. In an extremely technologically advanced sport where stuff that happens within fractions of a second (the weapon tips have to be depressed for 15 milliseconds to register a foil touch. It used to be 2 milliseconds but a semi-recent ruling extended the time to eliminate “flicking,” requiring everyone to patch their scoring machines. In epee, touches scored up to 45 milliseconds apart can be considered “simultaneous”), not having a clock that displays this level of precision is an abomination.

If we went back and looked at videos of old fencing records we might observe many errors due to their inferior technologies, but that doesn’t make me feel better. Do people who get the wrong kidney operation due to hospital errors feel better that in the distant past a barber would’ve been butchering them using liquor as anesthetic instead? No, because why did you operate on my left kidney instead of the right?! I’m going to extend the analogy because doctors are supposed to do no harm, and in epee, by far the easiest to direct of any of the fencing weapons, the referee is supposed to ensure the fencers don’t get unfair advantages and allow the machines to do the job, not generate unfair situations.

Why was there 1 second added to the clock after time had expired? No explanation. Why was the clock measuring out more than 1 second after the extra second had been added? No explanation.

Second, the news surrounding the event offends me as a citizen of the world supposedly relying on the free press and lately unwillingly bombarded by the excreta of said press. Long ago I had stopped reading most non-science news (except hacker news and occasionally the Economist; I mainly rely on blogs of people whose judgment I trust to read, analyze, cross check, and pass on news information to me) because the news mill runs on sensationalism and does not inform me of anything. Accuracy is probably not even in the top 3 principal components of whether a news article generates money, and may even be anticorrelated because controversy and offensiveness may spawn subsequent articles that then generate more money.

With such twisted incentives, does one wonder that the articles suggest that Shin “dramatically refused” to leave the stage? The main offensive part about this is that it’s suggesting she’s the one being unsportsmanlike when in fact it is everyone else. She’s trying to follow the rules, which states she’s not allowed to leave the strip during an appeal, even though she probably wanted to so she could cry in private instead of in front of many people. Trust me, Asians do not like to show uncontrolled emotions in public. Our parents do not kiss even in the presence of their kids, and perhaps do not ever kiss: how I was even conceived may be one of the great scientific mysteries that will probably remain unknowable for all time, like the mating habits of giant squids.

Third, I’m offended as a female fencer. What do people think of the news fixation on her crying? Does crying mean you’re being a baby or unsportsmanlike? She is a professional athlete who kicks ass and I take offense to her portrayal as some crybaby girl. I would’ve cried too, inside my mask. A non-Asian man may have punched something or snapped his weapon and gotten disqualified. The situation is angering and frustrating!

Shin, I am sorry this unfair thing has happened to you. Out of benevolence towards the Olympic committee, I hope that this injustice was simply due to stupidity and incompetence rather than bias. You should have gotten a gold or a silver Olympic medal but instead you didn’t get anything other than ridicule from the news for trying to follow the rules. The FIE admitted the Olympic clock sucked and that the director was wrong but they can’t do anything about it. I don’t know what the deal is with the consolation prize for sportsmanship: is it sportsmanlike to abide by injustice?

In sports, as in life, these kinds of injustices happen all the time. In the Errigo vs. Vezzali womens foil semifinals, the director made 2 very questionable calls in favor of Errigo which put Vezzali in the situation of having only 1 more point before she would lose, at which point the director felt the heat of getting blamed for taking away Vezzali’s potentially 4th Olympic individual gold and abstained from calling the next point, which would’ve given Errigo the win. Lucky for him, his prayers for a point that wouldn’t require him to decide anything were answered, not in Vezzali’s favor. This upset resulted in an anticlimactic gold medal bout (except what were those Italians arguing about while everyone shushed them during the final point?).

Is it showing my MIT-ness that I view everything as a technological problem? When we used to not have replays, electric equipment, metal strips, etc, cheating and errors were much more rampant and less easy to argue factually. In the past, epeeists probably just hit the ground or their own foot and the ref would call it their point. Now that we have video evidence, it’s actually more painful when the injustice does occur. Maybe one day our clocks will be good enough to be able to handle these scenarios (oh wait, that’s today…) and we’ll have a impartial computerized referees that don’t make erroneous calls.