You gotta fight for your right to parry

(The headline was stolen from one of my cleverer friends.)

I'm taking time out of my busy vacation to draw your attention (if it hasn't been already) to the story of South Korean fencer Shin A Lam, who got screwed out of her trip to the finals of the women's individual epeé.¹ The story is heart-wrenching, and the photojournalism is moving in its simplicity. (Assisted in large part by the rule that fencers must not leave the piste while the appeal is in progress.)

The FIE, fencing's international governing body, later chose to award Shin a special medal "For aspiration to win and respect of the rules." Apparently, the FIE's timekeeping equipment was not up to the task because "They never expected this kind of thing to happen in the last second, three attacks. Their timekeeping machine is only in seconds, not points of a second."

Um, right. Because nobody expected fencing to have sudden bursts of intense, frantic activity which require split-second accuracy.

¹ To avoid matches which last indefinitely, fencing has a concept known as priority: Before the final overtime round, one of the fencers is chosen at random to have priority. If no winner is determined by the final round, then the fencer with priority is declared the winner. Shin had priority, so if the ruling had been no-touch, she would have been the one to advance.

Comments (17)
  1. pete.d says:


    But I'm trying to figure out why the inclusion of the word "to" twice in the headline is important.  "You gotta fight", or "You got to fight", I get it.  But "You gotta to fight"?

    With the special emphasis on the headline being "stolen" from someone "clever", I feel like something's going over my head here. Why the strange construction?

    [It's called an "editing error". The original title was "got to", and then I looked up the lyrics and noticed that it's "gotta" so I fixed the "got" to "gotta" and forgot to delete the "to". Because I'm on vacation and not at my usual computer. -Raymond]
  2. JW says:

    I feel sorry for the woman; the mental blow this spectacle must have caused probably made winning the bronze duel completely impossible, so it is good she's getting a special honorary medal out of it.

    For as far as the rules go… to me, it is simple. Were the fencers aware that the winner-by-default was Shin A Lam? If so, and if accurate re-timing using video images shows it was over time, she should have won it. Very few people see one second on the clock, and keep fighting after that second has passed. If the third hit was really within the time-limit, then obviously the German has won. But I seriously doubt it.

    [I assume that the result of the coin toss is made public before the round begins. Otherwise, you may as well have the coin toss after the round is over. -Raymond]
  3. Simon Farnsworth says:

    For pete.d, and anyone else who doesn't get Raymond's headline, it's a play on a Beastie Boys song title –…/(You_Gotta)Fight_for_Your_Right(To_Party!)

  4. Anonymous Coward says:

    In the end, I think the timekeeping was right, though.  There's a beep right after the "Allez!" to signal the start of time, and another beep when the foil touched, and with a stopwatch, I get about 0.8s to 0.9s (I did this a few times to be sure).

  5. To me, the fact that the timer never counted down from 0:01 to 0:00 is not evidence that it is malfunctional. When taken along with the claim that the timer has a precision of 1 second, I think it's evidence that it is a clear indication that she got the touch within a second. If it was a second or more, it would have counted down to 0:00.

  6. J says:

    The video in that article only show the last part of it. The protest (as I understand it) was because the clock did count down to zero but they reset it to one second. See this video that shows what happened before:

  7. JDP says:

    I think it would have been remarkably sporting for her opponent to stay on the Piste with her.

    [That would have been awesome. -Raymond]
  8. Jared says:

    So, there is controversy because extra time was awarded, which caused the fencer with more points to win, as opposed to the fencer who won a coin flip. I don't see the big deal. The rules of an olympic event shouldn't be that a coin flip is the tiebreaker.

  9. Nick says:

    Regarding priority:

    I don't understand the mentality that leads to rules like this.  You have two very talented people, each unable to best the other, and after a grueling duel that cannot be decided the victor is chosen by a coin toss?  How is that remotely reasonable?  It's even worse than the tie-breaking rules of Association football, which is an accomplishment.

  10. James says:

    @Jared: As stupid as it is to break a tie via coin flip in advance, it's wrong to essentially change the rules in the middle of a game.  Knowing that you're going to win by default could very well affect your behavior and strategy (e.g. playing less aggressively).

  11. voo says:

    I find it strange that they throw the coin before starting, doesn't that give one of the two a nice tactical advantage? Would seem fairer to do that afterwards.

    With a crude stopwatch I do get something around 1.0 seconds, so maybe Anonymous Coward's right and it's in time, maybe not. Considering that the jurors did confer for quite some time, did nobody just make sure with the official recordings whether it was in time? Seems pretty easy to me if you have the material.

    [If you do it at the end, then it's basically "The winner is decided by coin toss." By tossing the coin early, you at least give one fencer the opportunity to alter their strategy: "I'd better attack more aggressively because if I don't, I'm going to lose the coin toss." That way, they at least have some control over their destiny. -Raymond]
  12. Whilst it was no doubt upsetting for Shin, I really don't understand the level of sympathy she is getting.

    The initial problem, if you watch the entire event as it unfolds, is that the clock incorrectly ran down to 0:00 AFTER it was supposed to have been stopped and before it was supposed to have been restarted for the next en garde/attack or whatever it's called.  The German completes two VERY FAST attacks with the clock seemingly "stuck" on 0:01.  Then whilst the competitors are still making their way back to their starting positions, the clock suddenly dropped to 0:00.  The Koreans noticed this and drew the judges attention to it, appearing to be trying to claim victory at that point.

    Let's think about this… at the end of an attack, the German still had some time on the clock in which to make a 3rd attack but that time then is taken away.  Shin at this point will win on the basis of a COIN TOSS.  Who would have been "robbed" of victory at this stage ?

    So, recognising that the clock had INCORRECTLY fallen to 0:00, the officials restored the minimum amount of time they could on the clock: 1 second.  Whether they could or should have restored only whatever fraction of a second actually remained is debatable, but in terms of fairness of the result it has very little bearing.

    We already saw not one but TWO attacks completed in that period of time by the German.  The situation is now exactly as it was at the 1 second point previously.  BOTH competitors have the same amount of time in which to resolve a deadlocked match.  If Shin had managed to avoid being hit, or achieved a double-hit then she wins but still only on the basis of a goddamed coin toss.  In other words by sheer chance.

    But she had the opportunity to beat her opponent fairly by scoring a hit and had the exact same amount of time in which to do so as her opponent.

    As it happened, it was the German that scored the hit and thus broke the deadlock.

    The conclusion must be that the German opponent was the better fencer on the day and however disappointed that Shin might have been for having failed to win through GOOD LUCK, the result was undeniably fair.

    It was a DRAMATIC result, not a controversial one.

  13. Andrei Vajna says:

    I don't know how fencing goes, but I don't get this. If there was just one second left, why didn't she just back up defensively and wait for the time to run out?!

  14. David Walker says:

    As I understand it, there was a clock or timing malfunction here.  That's a horrible thing to happen in an Olymxxx sport.

  15. SMW says:

    I made a comment here about how the match might have only had 0.5 seconds left but the clock's one-second resolution hindered that, but my comment seems to have been dropped.

  16. cheong00 says:

    @Jolyon: Imagine you're watching NBA, TeamA have 2 points advantage to TeamB in the last second. And within that last second, one of the players in TeamB scored a 3-point shoot and win the game. Just after that TeamA made an objection because there's a clear timing error in the timing equipment that, when that player shoot the ball, the time should have already over.

    Would you still hold that opinion?

    I think the judge will still count the shoot effective and let TeamB wins, but would you still think it's not a controversial one?

  17. sh code says:

    It's interesting to me, how at every olympics stories like these arise, while I can't shake off the feeling that olympics should be different, gentlemanly, celebrating not only humanity's competitive spirit. In a situation like this, the proclaimed winner should tell the judges to give the loser a chance (I don't really understand what happened and what should've happened according to koreans, so that's why I'm writing it in such a general sense), and judges should say "okay". Without arguements, without anger. I know I'm idealist, and rules probably don't allow such a thing, but I can't change my view that Olympics shouldn't be taken as "one of the most prestigious competition", but more like an series of exhibition matches amongst the best of the best, done for the joy of sport itself, and overcoming one's limits.

    Yes, I'm definitely a hopeless idealist.

    [That would be great. Tennis and golf are the only major sports I'm aware of where this sort of sportsmanship is not uncommon. -Raymond]

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