The FIE Non-Combativity Proposal is Malarkey

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The Federation Internationale d’Escrime (FIE) often resembles a hyperactive cat distracted by a laser pointer. Each year, ambitious new rule changes are proposed that hold neither the support of the fencers impacted, nor the referees enforcing them. Last year, we piloted the now defunct “Russian Box of Death” proposal that set the Sabre en garde lines closer, and a few years ago, the FIE toyed with the idea of shortening epee bouts to three two-minute periods. Neither came to fruition.

But a new non-combativity rule proposal awaiting final approval from the FIE stands to fundamentally change Epee as we know it, and not in a particularly intuitive or intelligent way. Fencing.net has provided a nice summary of the rule change, which I’ve quoted below:

  • Priority is now determined before the start of a bout.

  • There is now a 45 second “shot clock” that is reset after a touch is scored.

  • If no touch is scored at the end of the “shot clock”, the bout is halted, the fencer with priority is awarded a touch, priority switches to the other fencer, and the fencers are reset.

  • Every time a touch is scored (double touches included), the “shot clock” is reset and priority switches to the other fencer.

  • Priority also changes if the score is tied at the last touch of the bout (for example, 4-4 in a pool bout) and a double touch occurs.

  • If there are only 45 or fewer seconds left in a bout, priority no longer changes.

  • Epee Direct Elimination bouts will be fenced to 10 minutes with 1 minute breaks at 5 and 10 points,similar to saber’s break at 8.

In the past, I’ve opined that a shot clock interpretation of non-combativity is necessary to bring more objectivity to the rule, but the current proposal introduces a series of convoluted variables that would make the most spectator-friendly weapon harder to track for spectator, fencer, and referee alike.

At the heart of the proposal’s problem is the complication of priority. With the current rules in place, the idea of priority is only introduced if and when a bout is tied when time expires, or if non-combativity is called in the third period. The Fencer who isn’t rewarded priority is compelled to score a touch within the minute allotted. If s/he chooses to remain passive and let the minute expire, s/he loses the bout.

With the new proposal, before the referee has even called “allez!” for the first time, priority looms over the fencers’ heads and changes hands like a server and returner in a tennis match. Perhaps to the detriment of active fencing, the proposal seems to eliminate periods ending (with no one minute break) at the call of non-combativity, which could lead to more defensive-minded fencers approaching bouts with an even more passive mentality than the current rules allow for (until the final five or so seconds of the shot clock).

The constant switching of priority could become difficult to keep track of, as now the fencer and referee must be wary of it after every touch for the first 135 seconds of a period. And with the addition of one minute breaks for 5 and 10 touch intervals, the proposal stands to take NAC events that are already divided into two days and make them even longer.

Olympian Max “The Lord of Backflick” Heinzer had a lukewarm reception to the proposal, praising how it drives fencers to action while expressing concerns about impacts on viewership: “Today, a fencing match is like a tie break in tennis and the better fencer isn’t always the winner,” Heinzer said. “With the new regulation, I find it good that it is no longer just enough to stay on the defensive. Now, you have to be able to attack several times per bout. Nevertheless, it becomes harder to understand for the viewer with the many rules introduced.” Heinzer shared with me some of his creative ideas to improve epee fencing, including elimination of the double touch, having touches appear visibly on a fencer’s jacket when scored, and making epee bouts like sets in a tennis match.

New rules for the sake of rules aren’t good rules at all. The FIE made the right decision in introducing non-combativity to begin with, they made the right decision in eliminating penalty cards for non-combativity, and they made the right decision in eliminating the 15-seconds of no blade contact provision. The next logical progression would be to introduce the shot clock idea. The rest of the proposal, is malarkey. Let’s see how they vote on it in the coming weeks.

One thought

  1. A modest proposal: If one wanted to guarantee a certain level of action in any epee bout, without recourse to a system of rules that defeat the very spirit and purpose of epee as a non-conventional weapon, why not simply re-introduce the concept of the double defeat? Take as long as you want to size up your opponent, but if at the end of regulation time, neither party had scored 5 touches in a pool bout, or 15 in a DE, then both fencers go down in defeat. You want action? You want drama? There you have it! And it couldn’t be simpler.

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