On Monday afternoon, the world of fencing got some unexpected attention due to a major controversy in the 2nd semi-final match of the Women's Individual Epee competition at the London Olympics, between Shin A Lam of South Korea and Britta Heidemann of Germany.

There has been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media--ESPN, NBC, etc., ALL of which have incorrect, incomplete, or misleading information in them.  There's also been a lot of nonsense and finger-pointing online as to whose fault it was and wasn't.

This is an attempt to provide a complete explanation of what actually occurred, why it happened, and what should have happened.

Here's what happened

At the end of the 3rd and final period of the match, the score was tied 5-5.  When a fencing match ends in a tie score, the referee randomly (usually via computer or coin toss) determines which of the two fencers has "priority."  The fencers then fence a sudden death overtime period of one minute; whoever scores first wins.  But, if neither fencer scores within that overtime minute, the fencer with "priority" wins the match.
The scoring computer randomly assigned priority to Shin.  If neither fencer scored a decisive touch during the  overtime minute, she would win the match and advance to the gold medal bout.

The overtime minute began.  With 24 seconds remaining, both fencers scored simultaneously (a "double touch").  When this happens during sudden death, neither fencer gets a point.  The referee places the fencers back on guard and continues the match.

Note that at this point, when the fencers are replaced on guard with 24 seconds remaining, the fencers are the proper distance apart from each other.

This becomes important later as a point of contrast, so let me explain.  Section t.17.4 of the official FIE rulebook states:

"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."

Translating to layman's terms, this means that when both fencers stick their arms straight out towards their opponent, their blades shouldn't overlap at all.

Anyway, back to the action.  With 15 seconds remaining, there's another double touch.  The fencers now, when replaced on guard, are too close to each other.  The referee, Barbara Csar, attempts to enforce the rules by having them back up, but neither one of them really listen.  She then restarts the action anyway.

With 9 seconds remaining, another double touch.  The fencers reset too close together again, but this time only slightly.

With 5 seconds remaining, another double touch.  The fencers reset too close (so much so this time that their blades are very nearly overlapping by just standing on guard, without even extending their arms) and the referee restarts the action.

With 4 seconds remaining, another double touch.  The fencers reset too close again, and the referee restarts the action.

With 1 second remaining, another double touch.  Csar briefly approaches the strip and waves for Heidemann to back up, then approaches again and asks both fencers to back up.  But not only are they still too close together, but Heidemann starts attacking Shin before the Csar calls "Fence!"  The picture to the left is at the exact moment Csar says fence, and you can see how much of a jump Heidemann has gotten!

Another double touch, and there is still 1 second on the clock.  Shin complains that Heidemann jumped early, but Csar ignores her just replaces the fencers on guard again.  Shin seriously starts complaining here about Heidemann crowding too close.

Csar asks the fencers to give ground, but then inexplicably starts the match with Heidemann crowding Shin more than ever!

ANOTHER double touch (that's the 7th consecutive double touch during the overtime period, and the 3rd with 1 second remaining on the clock), and there is somehow STILL one second on the clock.

The crowd is just incredulous at this point.  Csar, surprised like everyone else that there's still 0:01 on the clock, turns around to the timekeeper and says, "Time?"  At this point, you can hear the tell-tale beep of the clock starting, and then it immediately ticks down to 0:00 (as seen to the left).  What apparently happened is that the timekeeper had not started the clock during the preceding action (no tell-tale beep), and then started it when Csar asked about the timer.

Some in the crowd cheer because they think the bout is over, and Shin has won.  But Csar approaches the fencers and says, "1 second, 1 second" indicating that 1 second will be put back on the clock.

The Korean coach goes ballistic, approaching the fencing strip, and can be heard to shout, "Three times, one second!"

1 second is put back on the clock, and the fencers get back on guard.  Again, far too close.

After the referee says fence, Heidemann launches an attack and scores.  Only she scores this time, no double touch.  And she somehow manages to do it before time expires, as there is still 0:01 showing on the clock.

The Korean coach approaches, screaming at Csar and the other officials ("Four times, one second!  How??")   Csar confers the other officials for a moment, then approaches the strip and awards the bout to Heidemann by a score of 6-5.  The Korean coach (and presumably Shin, but she's off-camera) ask for a video replay review of the last touch.

A gaggle of fencing officials and referees (20 or so) descend on the video replay station and discuss the situation for 20+ long minutes, while the Korean and German coaches run out of things to argue about with the officials and, quite surreally, sit calmly talking to each other.  Both Both Heidemann and Shin wait on the strip.

Finally, after 25 minutes or so, a decision is made.  Csar approaches the strip again and makes the same call: touch stands, bout over, Heidemann wins 6-5.  Heidemann celebrates to Shin, walks over to shake her hand, and leaves the strip.

Shin does not.

The Koreans immediately decide to file a formal appeal.  By rule, the appealing fencer must stay on the strip until the appeal is decided.

And so, Shin A Lam sits alone on the fencing strip, with 8,000 in attendance and tens of thousands more watching online, tears running freely down her cheek.

...for over 40 minutes.

It was pretty much the most heartwrenching thing I've seen.  Not just in fencing, not just in sport, but ever.

A bunch of media outlets started picking up the story around this time, while Shin was still on the strip.  I'll note that most of them reported this as Shin "refusing to leave the strip in protest" or a "sit-in protest" or some other nonsense, when in reality she had absolutely no choice but to stay on the strip. By the rules, she was required to stay on the strip until the fencing officials ruled on the appeal.  I'm sure she would have rather been anywhere else in the world.

There was also some nonsense with outrage (both in the arena and online) over the $80 fee that the Korean delegation had to hand over in cash in order to get their appeal heard.  This wasn't a bribe or grease payment or anything of the sort. It was a required-by-the-rules administrative fee, designed to prevent frivolous appeals, that is required to be paid for an official written appeal.

After 40 long minutes of this, the FIE (Federation Internationale d'Escrime, the international fencing organization) ruled against Shin.  They later released a written statement, describing the protest as "groundless."

Shin was then escorted off the strip by several officials, after receiving a yellow card.  I was never clear what for.  Delaying the bout?  Unsuccessful protest?  Who knows.

She would fence (and lose) the bronze medal bout 10 minutes later.

Who's at fault?

 The Scorekeeper

Clearly, the mysterious scorekeeper messed up.  I think this is the one point on which everyone actually agrees.  The timekeeper was not taking care to start the clock promptly when the referee called "Fence!", didn't start the clock AT ALL on the 3rd 1-second-left action, and then, on top of all of that, inexplicably ran the clock down to zero after that action was long over.  Was the timekeeper confused by the referee turning around and saying "Time?", and thought she wanted the clock to be tested?  Was the timekeeper trying to run some time off the clock between the actions since they hadn't done so during the action?  There are no good answers.

The Referee

There is wide disagreement on whether to blame the referee for this debacle.  While I don't think Barbara Csar is wholly at fault, I can't but feel that she completely lost control of the last 15 seconds of the bout.

1. Allowing the fencers to repeatedly start too close together

Not once, not twice, but SEVEN TIMES in the last twenty seconds of the bout, she allowed the fencers to come on guard far too close to each other.  

Since Heidemann is the one who needed to score in order to win, this provided her with a very real advantage.  It allowed her for more opportunities to do so, since she had to travel less distance and thus less time.  I believe that even with the timekeeping errors, lining them up at the proper distance would have been sufficient to not allow for the first three touches all to have magically occurred all within the course of a single second.

There are a couple of high-level officials who have said--I'm paraphrasing--that in situations like this you let the fencers set their own distance, and that Shin wanted the distance to be close too.  I hope it's obvious how ridiculous both of these arguments are, but since they are coming from some highly seasoned referees, I'll take a moment to refute them.

Let's take the latter part first.  Shin explicitly asked for Heidemann to be backed up on several occasions (one of which is screencapped above), and eventually stopped--to make the best of a bad situation, I suppose--when it was clear that Csar wasn't effectively controlling the bout.  And as for the idea that we should let the fencers set their own distance in contradiction to the Rulebook (t.17.4), I would ask what other rules we should leave up to the fencers.  What defines a riposte?  Corps-a-corps?  Nonsense.

2. Ignoring Heidemann's early start

Csar did absolutely nothing after Heidemann started her action early on to the 2nd 1-second-left touch.  There were several things she could or should have done.

The easiest and best thing to do would have been to simply not start the action once she saw Heidemann starting to move, to replace the fencers on guard (at proper distance, of course), and then to resume the match.

If she wasn't able to stop the word "Fence" coming out of her mouth (this happens, sometimes you just can't stop yourself in time even though you've seen someone start to jump), then the next best thing to do would have been to immediately stop and wave off the action, and replace the fencers on guard again.

Additionally, given that Heidemann had a false start earlier in the overtime period, a yellow card for the false start would have been another possible remedy.  And before someone says this would have been ridiculous, I'll remind you that excessive false starts during the Men's Sabre event the previous day prompted a referee to quite correctly give a red card to Luigi Tarantino (ITA), which gave his opponent the 15th touch and directly cost him the bout.

These are rookie mistakes.  Every beginning referee is taught how to alter the cadence of their "Ready?  Fence!" to prevent false starts, and how to replace fencers on guard properly.  I understand that it's a high pressure situation, being the semi-finals of the Olympics and all, but that's why she was there.  To make tough calls, keep order on the strip, and enforce the rules in high pressure situations.

Predictably, the Thin Blue Blazer Line of Silence has stopped most referees from criticizing Csar publicly, even though many are doing so privately.  I don't see how silence helps anything.  A young woman has been robbed of an Olympic medal.  We must acknowledge when things go wrong, admit fault, and strive to be better.


Let's end with a comparable case.  Consider the case of Armando Galarraga's near-perfect baseball game on June 2, 2010.  The first-base umpire, Jim Joyce, called what should have been the last batter of the game safe at first base, ruining Galarraga's perfect game.  Every replay indicated that the batter should have been out.

Joyce met with both the media and with Galarraga after the game to apologize for his error, and in doing so earned widespread praise for his sportsmanship in doing so.  I stole this from Wikipedia; hope no one minds:

Joyce, a 22-year veteran, tearfully admitted after the game that "I did not get the call correct," insisting that he "took a perfect game away from that kid over there that worked his ass off all night". Joyce called the Donald ruling "the biggest call of my career," claiming that "I thought [Donald] beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay".  The umpire later said, "I didn't want this to be my 15 minutes of fame. I would have liked my 15 minutes to be a great call in the World Series. Hopefully, my 15 minutes are over now".
Just prior to the next day's game, a tearful Joyce met Galarraga at home plate to receive the Tigers' line-up card. The two shook hands and Joyce gave the pitcher a pat on the shoulder. Joyce's accountability and regret, and Galarraga's sportsmanship were widely praised for turning the unfortunate situation into a positive.

We're human.  We make mistakes.  We should apologize for them when we can.

Do we hear anything from Csar?  Do we hear fault admitted from the FIE?  We do not.  We instead get the FIE offering to give Shin a "special award," without actually admitting that anyone (other than the scoring system itself) was at fault.

What would have been truly special was anyone involved in this debacle doing something--anything--right.

Shin deserves better.  I hope with my whole heart that the IOC steps in and awards Ms. Shin a medal, similarly to how they awarded Canadian figure skaters Salé and Pelletier gold medals during the 2002 Winter Olympics, after they were unfairly caught up in the midst of a judging scandal.  

We'll see.


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