2020 Olympics: Why Fencing is Okay
The sports world got a major shock this week when the IOC announced that it was cutting wrestling from the “core 25” sports of the 2020 Olympic Games. Wrestling looks to be out of the Games as the sport must re-apply for one open slot, but the IOC is looking to add a new sport to the Olympic program.
What is especially surprising is wrestling’s history at the Olympics. Wrestling was one of the original sports in the modern Olympic Games as well as a sport from the ancient Olympics. The IOC’s move serves notice that no sport is truly safe from being cut.
Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. They will be vying for a single opening in 2020.
For the past few Olympic cycles, fencing has been one of the sports talked about as being under the gun and under threat of being cut by the IOC.
Why did wrestling get cut but fencing remains somewhat safe?
The International Fencing Federation (FIE) under Rene Roch had been working on tweaks to fencing’s presentation and format for a number of years to make the sport more media friendly. Fencing has spent a long time playing defense with regards to Olympic positioning and made a number of plays including actively responding to negative PR events with positive changes to the sport. Here are a few of the changes that we’ve identified:
Adding Women’s Sabre:
In a move to improve gender parity in the sport, the FIE added women’s sabre to the Olympic program in 2004. This move was controversial because the IOC did not add any medals, causing women’s foil AND women’s epee to both lose their team events at the 2004 Games. Since then the FIE has changed to rotation to be one men’s and one women’s discipline.
The 2004 Olympic Games Men’s Team Foil event saw a referee controversy when the referee awarded several points for Italy over China that, on review by the FIE, should have gone the other way. The FIE determined that the calls were so bad that they disciplined the referee. This was a horrible PR event for fencing as it highlighted that the judging of points was not objective and possibly subject to cheating.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the FIE has instituted video replay for the Olympics. In their press conference before the Games, FIE President Rene Roch said that the use of new technologies will help make the judging fairer. He said there used to be complaints on the judges’ decisions, but the new video system will significantly reduce such complaints.
The IOC lauded fencing’s use of video replay. If nothing else, it adds to the perception of objectivity in the sport.
Other combat sports, including wrestling, face problems of referee interpretation of the actions for scoring. As these are combat sports and not “art” sports (like gymnastics and skating), the obscure judging hurts perceptions of the sport and is something that that IOC is looking at.
Zonal Points and Zonal Qualifications:
Fencing insiders have griped about the zonal system ever since it was put in place. In a move to promote fencing as a world-wide sport and not a euro-centric sport, the FIE set up zonal championships to award FIE points at events limited to fencers from specific regions. The regions match up with the Olympic zones: Europe, Asia + Oceana, Africa, and the Americas.
In addition there are zonal qualification tournaments at the end of the Olympic qualifying cycle to give smaller nations a shot by entering their best fencer as a last chance to get into the Games.
The FIE’s reason for these moves was to give more chances to different countries and regions for Olympic glory. If you look at FIE press releases from the world championships leading up to the 2012 Games, as well as the 2012 Games coverage, you’ll notice a great deal of ink spent lauding the accomplishments of the non-European nations.
The FIE struck PR gold and earned points with the IOC when Ruben Limardo (VEN) won Olympic Gold in Men’s Epee facing off against Bartosz Piasecki (NOR). Limardo won Venezuela’s first gold medal since 1968 and Piasecki had entered the 2012 Games via the “wild card” process that is the zonal qualifiers. In addition fencing saw its first African medalist when Alaaeldin Abouelkassem (EGY) won silver in Men’s Foil.
Here you go IOC, a global sport where not only does everyone have a shot at playing, but they’ve got a shot at winning too.
Wireless Fencing, Visor Masks, and Stagecraft
We’ll lump all of these into the same overall category of “visual appeal.” This started out with visor masks, derided by fencing purists, but loved by some media outlets.
The wireless systems were another nod to problems broadcasters had with wired fencing – have you really listened to the noise the reel cables make when two epee fencers are bouncing through an entire DE match? One unexpected benefit to the wireless system was the freedom it gave to the fencers to really celebrate the winning touch. Really, could Limardo have shown as much emotion tied down to a leash at the end of the strip?
The staging of the 2011 World Championships led into even better staging for the 2012 Games. Leon Paul provided a strip lighting system that made fencing look like a retro video game by lighting up not only the fencer, but their side of the piste when there was a score.
Media-types and casual viewers alike gushed over the displays. The Olympics is fencing’s “Greatest Show”, and the lighting came up to the task.
Is fencing out of the woods?
It would be nice to think that fencing’s problems are all behind it, but with what happened to wrestling, we know that no sport is safe. Though fencing has taken great strides over the past two Olympic cycles, it still had the horrible ending to the Shin A Lam / Heidemann bout to work through. That it took officials on-site well over an hour to come to a conclusion and final ruling was bad, that there was a delay in getting a unified front together in explaining it all to the press was worse. At the end of it all, however, fencing got a ton of press and the FIE now knows of one more thing that it will have to address with potential rules and procedure changes before Rio.
What do you think? Should wrestling have gotten the axe? Is fencing safe? What does fencing need to do to insure its Olympic longevity?
2020 Olympics: Why Fencing is Okay by Craig Harkins