Guest Post #3: Brawn Over Brains? Putting Non-Combativity in Perspective (By Alex Powell)


Talking to fencers about the rule book is like listening to Rabbis study the Talmud. After Mike Still’s thoughtful post in favor of non-combativity, another Brandeis teammate Alex Powell has provided my third guest post against the non-combativity rules. He’s a smart child. I included a picture of me hitting him with a fleche because I’m an asshole.

Hi! My name is Alex, a former Brandeis Epee fencer and (unfortunate) teammate of Damien’s.  After reading my buddy Mike’s thoughtful post on the benefits of Non-combativity in Epee, I am tempted to put my two cents into the discussion of the new rule’s place in our sport.  I respect Mike and Damien’s praise and approval of non-combativity, and while I agree with impetus behind the rule, I believe the rule is being misused in its present incarnation and is actually causing more harm to the sport than good.

The F.I.E. (Federation Internationale d’Escrime aka FENCING IS EXPENSIVE), Fencing’s international governing body officially dictates non-combativity as “When both fencers make clear their unwillingness to fence.”  The rule was brought about as a response to a horrendous incident in fencing when during the 2001 Senior World Championships, when during the Men’s Team Epee Gold Medal Match, fencers from Hungary and Estonia refused to engage each other in combat during several rounds of fencing.  Whether this was due to the fencers on both sides respecting their opponent’s game to the extreme, or as a strategy to keep the score as low as possible for the majority of the match to set up each team’s best fencer with a favorable chance of winning (“Leaving it in their hands”) in the last rounds, it made no difference to the F.I.E. who were embarrassed in front of the I.O.C. members in attendance.  The fact that this occurred at the highest level of competition with widespread European T.V. coverage didn’t help either.  The video can be seen here

Anyone who watches this video would agree this is about as entertaining as getting a prostate exam.  It is in this context of EXTREME refusal to engage your opponent that the rule should be enacted.  However, the current rule stipulates that non-combativity may be called when there is “Approximately one minute of fencing without a touch.” or “Absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of an advance-lunge) for at least 15 seconds.”  It is in this usage that I whole-heartedly disagree.

I was drawn to fence Epee originally because I truly believe it is the embodiment of “Physical Chess,” a sport that requires as much mental preparation and patience as it does physical prowess.  The ability to feel out one’s opponent early in a bout is crucial to determining the course of action one should take for the entire bout.  Furthermore, the beauty of Epee is that you can find brilliant fencers who employ offensive, defensive or counter-attacking strategies or a mix of strategies.  I personally love watching how 2 top level fencers will match up in terms of how their strategies will conflict and which will win out.  And from a spectator’s perspective, there is no greater action than watching the tension mount as 2 fencers try to out-game each other during a crucial point.  In fact some of the most compelling and entertaining bouts I’ve seen did not go to 15 points.  However, the non-combativity rule eliminates this essential and inherent patience and preparation in Epee fencing, by forcing fencers to forgo their preparation and rush into their actions.  Where the F.I.E. is shortsighted in this rule is that fencing for 1 minute without a touch or for 15 seconds without blade contact is still fencing!  You can still be pushing or pulling your opponent up and down the strip, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, waiting for that weakness you noticed earlier to expose itself, waiting for your opponent to do exactly what you want him to do, without scoring a touch during that time and still be actively fencing.  Also, I believe that non-combativity does not directly increase the athleticism of our sport.  We fencers were already extremely athletic to begin with (Which we always remind non-fencers who make fun of us in the middle of our Magic the Gathering games), and in my opinion Mental toughness and stamina go hand in hand with physical endurance to define athleticism.

Another problem, and potentially much more detrimental one at that is that with the current usage of the non-combativity rule, fencers can use it to their advantage to game their opponent and essentially cause the rule to become the problem its trying to solve?  What do I mean by this?  Talking to an anonymous fencer about the recent NAC in Milwaukee, he explained that during a DE bout between 2 elite Epee fencers, one of the epee fencers actually “mastered” using the non-combativity rule to his advantage by taking an early lead and refusing to give his opponent the blade.  His opponent, knowing that he needed blade contact within 15 seconds or be forced to advance a period in the bout, kept frequently searching for the blade, a strategy he did not want to employ in the first place.  As a result, the fencer who was ahead was successful in taking advantage of this undesirable situation for the other fencer, picking him off one touch at a time without blade contact and successfully winning the bout.

An even more extreme example comes yet again at the highest level of international competition.  During the 2007 World Championships, American fencer Seth Kelsey was ahead of France’s Eric Boisse by one point in the final period of a bout in the round of 16.  Seth had previously received a yellow card in the bout for an earlier offense.  Boisse realizing this backed up and refused to engage and a confused Kelsey followed suit since he was already ahead.  Just as Boisse had planned, the referee called non-combativity, and both fencers received a yellow card.  However Kelsey who, already had a yellow card was now given a red card, allowing Boisse to tie the score!  Boisse literally managed to score a touch by gaming the non-combativity rule to his advantage and would go on to win the bout and eventually claim a Silver metal.

The F.I.E. needs to adjust this rule so that situations like these can’t continue to happen.  There needs to be a compromise so that the powers that be feel that they are making their sport more exciting to spectators without sacrificing the inherent principles that make Epee fencing, Epee fencing.

-Alex Powell

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