In a referee’s enforcement of the rulebook, there are certain absolutes: the blade must pass a weight and shim test, the fencers must line up at the proper en garde lines, and you can’t tell a ref they suck when you sign the score-sheet. A fencer should be able to approach every bout with the expectation that rules will be enforced in a uniform manner, with referees holding a (mostly) common understanding of each rule’s applicability to a bout. Unfortunately, there is one rule that comes to mind that referees enforce with the same consistency and predictability as Amanda Bynes after a few cocktails: non-combativity.
Originally passed in response to the epic slothdom shown by the Hungarians and Estonians in the 2001 World Championships, the rule is likely to either garner strong support or staunch opposition in the fencing community. Regardless of how one feels about it, the rule is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it. The rule, as it’s currently written reads:
“T.87.4 When both fencers make clear their unwillingness to fence, the Referee will immediately call “Halt!”
If one of the two criteria below is present, there is unwillingness to fight.
a) Criterion of time: approximately one minute of fencing without a touch.
b) Absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of an advance-lunge) for at least 15 seconds.”
In competition, I have seen the rule applied as follows, with varying degrees of interpretation depending on the level of competition and the presiding official:
- Applied as if both the “15 second” provision and the “one minute” provisions were shot clocks (VLS scoring systems have a running shot clock to track blade contact)
- Applied as if the “15 second” rule is a shot clock but the “one minute” rule is not.
- Applied as if the “one minute” rule is a shot clock but the “15 second” rule is not.
- Applied with flexibility to the times listed in rule T.87.4.
So what is the correct way to apply the rule? I asked four of the United States’ best and most well-respected referees (Bradley Baker, Kevin Shanahan, Charles Astudillo, Kate Thomas) to provide their interpretation and applicability of the rule.
“The language offers some latitude to the referees, in that the rule specifies ‘approximately’ one minute of fencing. This means that it ought not to be treated as a shot clock. That said, it’s important to remain aware of general interpretations and stay within the overall consensus followed in our sport.” –Bradley Baker
“It’s not a one minute or 15 second shot clock in the strictest definition, but 1:05 or :20 is enough. The one minute rule is easier to keep track of, so I’ll call it more often, especially if a touch isn’t scored in the first minute of the bout, that one is pretty easy. It is pretty close to a shot clock with the word ‘approximately’ built in there for the 1:00 minute rule. If the fencers are engaged in an exchange, let them finish, but once it’s over and no touch has been scored, call it.”- Kevin Shanahan
“It’s kind of like a shot clock. I do allow some flexibility for both [the 15 second and one minute rules] say five seconds. The way it is enforced is essentially like football, delay of game. In the first minute of fencing, the open clock shows the one minute drop down. That can mean a hard minute. The fifteen second rule of no blade contact has much more flexibility.” –Charles Astudillo
“In some bouts, you get a sense early on that you might need to be on the lookout for it, so you keep an eye on the clock. The 15 seconds is much more variable. I’ve rarely called it for that. 15 seconds is a really long time to stay out of distance or not make any blade contact! When I have called it for that, it was very clear that one fencer was trying to set it up. I’m much stricter with the one minute. If one minute has gone by with no touches, I wait for a moment when they won’t hit (moving out of distance, for instance) and then call halt.” –Kate Thomas
Most of the officials I spoke to agreed that the fifteen second rule provides an added level of difficulty to management of the bout that they found cumbersome to consistently track, and each provided differing opinions as to whether or not the rule is to be applied like a shot clock or not.
The referees I spoke to were national level refs (highly rated ones at that), and even they had some differences in their interpretation. As competitions trickle down to the local level, the reading of the rule becomes even more wildly fluctuating (some refs are ignorant to the rule’s existence altogether); thus, the rule is often enforced with great subjectivity.
So how do we eliminate the subjective application of the rule and ensure that referees hold a common understanding of non-combativity? How do we make presiding over bouts easier for referees who are already tasked with watching one million things at once? And most importantly, how can we change the rule so that there is no element of surprise for the athletes when it comes to the rulebook?
The solution is practically simple but a politically difficult proposition: eliminate the 15 seconds of no blade contact rule and treat the “one-minute” clause of the rule as if it is a shot clock. According to Bradley Baker, such a rule could be on its way to the 2013 FIE Congress, submitted on behalf of the USFA. It will be debated in next week’s USFA executive board meeting.
“One minute as a shot clock would allow universal application and known outcomes in a bout, which would provide significant benefit to the fencers. Unfortunately, that has the potential to cut off good, active fencing, but at least people wouldn’t be surprised” said Baker.
Non-combativity is a necessary evil to make our sport more spectator-friendly and to avoid a repeat of Hungary-Estonia. But it must be altered so as to not interfere with the competitive integrity of the sport. A good step in the right direction would be to eliminate the “15-second” rule.
Damien is a competitive fencer and volunteer assistant coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. Damien was the coach of a London 2012 Olympic Athlete in Modern Pentathlon an is a member of the 2013 Maccabi Fencing Team. He is an A-rated epeeist and was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team.