I’ve now been home from Atlanta for more than a week. Physically, I’m mostly recovered: my once-swollen ankles are back to normal, my sinus cold has vanished, I’m no longer constantly thirsty, and—though I still drop off to sleep remarkably easily—I’m no longer feeling just as tired when I wake up as I did when I fell asleep.
I’m lucky, though. Working from home to my own schedule, I’ve been able to sit with my feet up all day and nap at will. I hate to think of all those officials at SN who worked days just as long as mine who used vacation days to do so and are now trying to recover while working at their real (paying) jobs.
The inescapable conclusion I come to is that we cannot do this again.
We’ve had tough SN schedules before. We BC types even rank them—virtually unanimously—in order of awfulness: All-time worst was Austin in 2003, where the front-loaded schedule left us 15 or 20 strips short on the first day even before we discovered that 20 strips were without power for most of the morning. It took us two days to figure out how to plan the delays so we could give fencers some reasonable idea of when they’d fence. That was also the year of the MF event with the 295 checked-in entries who gave us the infamous DE table of 512. Austin 2003 prompted the change to 80% promotion in the Divs.
Next worst was Atlanta 2006. Huge numbers. Long days. Everyone was testy, cranky, grouchy, and irritable, and we were awash in black cards and protests—”fun” was not an adjective that could accurately describe SN that year. That was the year I wrote my SN requiem. And that was the year that prompted the elimination of automatic qualification for the Divs for Junior and Cadet fencers who qualified for SN and of the trickledown qualification within the Divs.
The following year in Miami was, contrary to our expectations, almost laid-back. The changes in the qualifying path reduced the number of entries by about 1,000— more than was perhaps quite necessary—so that the schedule seemed relaxed in comparison.
For San Jose in 2008, the Div trickledown was restored, but between the sagging economy and the West Coast location, the numbers were roughly the same as in Miami. But last year in Dallas, the entries took a big jump back, to around 5,600, and we knew that Atlanta in 2010 would rival Atlanta 2006 for a place in the top ranks of painful SNs.
Sure enough, by the last week before SN this year, we were looking at over 6,500 individual entries and nearly 400 team entries, numbers right up there with the disastrous 2003. We knew it would be a tough SN.
Remarkably, though, despite the huge numbers and long delays, Atlanta 2010 was much different from the 2006 version. Most people, though frustrated with the crowds and the delays, were far more patient and understanding than has been typical at SN. And, unique among the 11 Summer National Championships I have worked, there was only a single black card awarded during the entire tournament. Most people seemed to grasp what a difficult tournament this was and made an effort to keep it from becoming even more so.
Everybody gets it—SN as we did it this year is simply not sustainable. While we were willing to make it work once we got to Atlanta and began to cope with the reality of what we’d been bracing ourselves for, I’m not sure that many of us would willingly walk into a situation that we knew would be like this again. We don’t like not being able to do our jobs well, and doing our jobs well is not possible when we’re teetering from exhaustion. It’s not that we weren’t willing to try, but as the days got harder from Monday through Wednesday, we became less able to cope with them, less flexible, less able to make appropriate decisions. It’s not fair to all of us officials to ask us to work this way, and it’s not fair to any fencers to ask them to accept calls and decisions from officials who are not at their best.
So then, what are the options?
1. We could go bigger. Fencing’s growing, so all we need are more space and more days to keep up with the growth. But that won’t work—we’re already at the limits of what we can afford for venues, using all the equipment we have, and far from growing our corps of officials to keep up, we’re losing officials to the lagging pay and the brutal work conditions. Bigger is not a viable option.
2. We could keep the same crowded schedule and double-staff it, so officials wouldn’t be forced to work such long days. But that would double the expenses for staffing SN, even if we had the people to double up with. As it is, we have trouble recruiting for SN—there simply aren’t yet enough qualified and experienced and available officials. Double-staffing is not a viable option.
3. We could break up Summer Nationals. This is part of last year’s schedule change proposal from the Tournament Committee, which was widely unpopular. Though many of us last year saw no alternative, there are a lot of disadvantages to smaller, more specialized tournaments. We’d need two venues and two staffs, and it’s quite likely that the total expenses would add up to more than what we spend on SN as it is now.
Plus, there’s the whole SN mystique—the gloriously insane idea of running all our age and ability levels in one giant tournament. When it works, there’s nothing else like it. (Of course, when it doesn’t work, there’s nothing else like it, either.) I am far from alone in my affection for the lunatic concept—in breaking up SN, we would lose something well worth keeping.
Breaking up SN is possibly a viable option but likely not an attractive one.
4. Fix SN so it works, so that schedules with most days 12 hours or less are again possible. This means that we create schedules based purely on the numbers and weapons without regard to which events conflict or are contiguous or too far separated, or it means we control the number of entries. Blind scheduling seems likely to be even more unpopular than breaking SN up; asking fencers and their families to stick around possibly for days between events would be too much, I think.
That leaves us with controlling the numbers, probably by tightening up the qualification paths again. Mostly likely, SN will need to become a points-only event: instead of divisional and sectional qualifiers, fencers will have to be on the points list for every category. We’ll have to create points lists for the Divs, using multiple results from the ROCs, perhaps in combination with auto-qualifying above a certain level, say top 8 or 16.
And we’ll probably need to keep tweaking the qualification paths to keep up with the growth. What works well enough for the next couple of years probably won’t for the next Olympic quadrennial—we’ll need to figure out a process for assessing the growth and adjusting the qualification paths as necessary.
More importantly, we need to work more seriously on developing the infrastructure we desperately need to support that growth regionally. Lots of people are working at this process, but the process is only just beginning. We must develop more and better referees, more and better armorers, and more and better bout committee staff. We need to learn to provide support for the intermediate levels of fencing—the regional events between the local and the national—where we’re only just figuring out what we need. And we must seriously develop the governance structures—both professional, in the national office, and volunteer, in the board and its various committees—to make it all work.
It’s not going to be easy. In fact, it often makes me tired just thinking about it all. But there’s no alternative.