Point Taken: Shin Lam’s Olympic Fencing Debacle
Fencing is not exactly on topic, but I do have a theological point to make if you’ll bear with me.
I fenced épée competitively for six years and experienced firsthand the fickle interference of politics, policy, and poor equipment both on and off the piste (the 8m x 1.5m strip of metal on which fencers face each other).
In 1994, while deciding whether or not to take my senior year off school to train fulltime for the Atlanta Olympics, I sustained a back injury which haunts me to this day in more ways than one. Since then I have nostalgically stalked the dreams of other fencers from a vicarious distance.
Of the three weapons in modern fencing, the épée is the arguably the most authentic, practical, and dramatic. (If you call me biased I’ll challenge you to a duel: my épée vs your foil.) Though it lacks the finesse of the foil or the flourish of the sabre, épéeists fight like old school musketeers, since theirs is the only weapon that doesn’t require a finicky adherence to a sophisticated “right-of-way” system, nor are the fencers limited to a designated target area. After all, when in reality can you ask your assailant to only hit you on the chest?
In épée the rules are simple: the entire body is fair game (foot, face, hand, you name it), and whoever hits, scores, even if both fencers hit simultaneously. Because of this, once a fencer is ahead by a single point, he/she may strategically opt to stop defending, and just settle for landing a hit at the same time as the opponent, leading to a situation where the scoring margin is very narrow. This can complicate matters, as happened on Monday in London.
In three bouts, the Korean Sin Lam won one, the German Britta Heidemann another, and they tied the third, which mandated a sudden death round. This type of bout is not won by getting to five first, like the other bouts, but is won by securing the highest number of points in a given time limit.
The Korean had the “priority” by number of points scored in the previous bouts, meaning that if the score tied in the sudden death round, she would have won. Which is exactly what happened. Kinda.
In the final second of the time limit, the presiding judge stopped the bout for some undisclosed and unspecified (supposed) violation. When the pause was over, the bout recommenced, but for some mysterious reason the clock was now set back at one second, a boon that allowed the German to pry a point out of the remaining time.
Heidemann was able to take three stabs at Lam, who was expecting the buzzer to end the match even before the first attack came. The third attack landed precisely as the buzzer sounded, and registered a winning hit.
No one knows if it was an anti-Korean human error or a serendipitous technical malfunction (was the clock made in Germany?). But even in a post-Einstein world, we all understand that when a clock is counting down, it isn’t supposed to go from zero back to one and then stay there indefinitely. It was an obvious case where common sense should have prevailed, and awarded the victory to the fencer who earned it in the allotted time. But that’s not what happened.
In a classic case of Eastern intuition (people are more important than policies) verses Western precision (but the computer says…), the judges opted to side with the machine, rather than their brains.
General secretary Maxim Paramonov said:
It was most likely that there was some failure with the equipment or the button hadn’t been pressed in time,…We were confronted by a dilemma: to take the right decision from a human point of view or the right decision from the point of view of fencing rules, which aren’t perfect. The technical committee decided to take the second route.”
Naturally the Koreans were, um, upset. Shin’s coach, Shim (yup), appealed the ridiculous ruling for 70 minutes, while the crowd was getting impatient.
Fencing, when done correctly, is hard to spectate. It’s basically watching blurry metal for a few split seconds at a time, followed by a buzz, and a light indicating who to cheer for. So after 70 minutes of no blurry metal or blinking lights, the popcorn-munching crowd was getting antsy and started to slow clap in protest of the protest. All the while, the crying Shin Lam was forced to sit in front of them as if she was the problem. If she left the piste it would be seen as conceding defeat.
One more sinister detail needs to be mentioned: With jaw-dropping cultural insensitivity, the Korean’s were informed that their appeal would not be considered official unless they “lodged money.” In Korea they call that a bribe. Appalling.
But the lesson I learned when my Olympic dream was shattered all those years ago, was that God is in control and has an eternal agenda that is right on schedule. My inability to drop out of school to train for the Olympics kept me on a track that led to my conversion the next year, a time-sensitive job opportunity three years later, and landed me in Israel at the precise semester to meet the six people who would be instrumental in getting me to seminary, in time to meet my wife, and to graduate exactly when Hillcrest Baptist was looking for a pastor. Bumping my life plan by 18 months would have had an irreversible ripple affect on my destiny.
God is sovereign over years, months, and every split second of every day. Only God knows what affect that single second will have in the life of Shin Lam.
And that’s my point.