Tournament Time

A repost—one of the first pieces I wrote for my old fencing blog:

National tournaments are weird events, if you’re a fencing official.

You show up when it’s time for you to show up—7:45 or 8:00 am, if you’re a referee; 7:00 or 7:30 am, if you’re a bout committee member; and usually even earlier if you’re an armorer.

Your day is a bipolar experience—stretches of waiting around for something to happen interspersed with mad frenzies to get the next event or the next round started or finished, sometimes with the operatic accompaniment of coaches’ tirades or lengthy asides of Talmudic discussions of the application of obscure rules.

Time expands and contracts in mysterious ways. At 10:00 am, you despair of your épée pools ever coming in, so you help someone else get their big foil event started. After about two hours, you discover it’s almost 10:15. Finally, you get your pools in and your DEs out and find those DEs moving along at a remarkable pace—after only a couple of hours, your almost-full table of 256 is nearly to the finals. The only problem is, the clock says it’s 7:45 pm, and you can’t remember whether you’ve had lunch or not.

This is Tournament Time, recognition of which is helpful for surviving NACs and essential for surviving Summer Nationals. Tournament Time means that once you get to the tournament, it doesn’t matter what time it is or what day, except for knowing which events are supposed to start when. The world is the tournament, and you never even notice the continual noise: The blade contact. The referees calling “Fence!” and “Halt!” The fencers yelling in triumph and frustration. The endless—and often garbled—PA announcments.

Until suddenly a single high-pitched electronic whine from one of the dozens of scoring boxes left on too loud penetrates your consciousness like a dental drill, and just when you think you’ll throw something at the next innocent who asks which strip her great-granddaughter’s Youth-10 women’s saber DE will be on the day after tomorrow, some merciful soul turns the machine off and brings you back from the brink of hysteria.

Is, was, and ever shall be. That’s Tournament Time.

BC Diary: Reflections

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.

BC Diary: Day 10

All packed up and checked out of the hotel on time. Just as I get to the platform, the MARTA train to the airport rolls into the station.

That turns out to be the best part of my travel day. United’s much vaunted mobile boarding pass elicits a beep and a flashing red light when I hold my phone over the TSA’s scanner, which reads it as an “invalid carrier.” The TSA guy says United’s electronic boarding passes never work here. But they let me in again at the scanner when I come back with a printed boarding pass, so I don’t have to zigzag through the whole line again.

Boarding is on time. I doze through the safety talk and am only vaguely aware of take-off, but then I never fall completely asleep because of a precocious four-year-old behind me with a voice like Margaret O’Brien’s in Meet Me in St. Louis, who narrates her complete stream-of-consciousness for the entire flight to Denver. She kicks, too.

In Denver I eat a leisurely lunch, and even manage to read a little. The flight to Sacramento is completely full, but at least there are no kicking children behind me this time.

At some point on the way home, it occurs to me that Tanya and I should have switched off as chair every two or three days—we might have held up better. When I email her this after I get home, she says she thought the same thing on the last day. We’re writing it down, so we remember for next time.

Stats:

  • Number of individual competitors: 69
  • Number of teams: 8
  • End time:  Around 1:00 pm, I’m told
  • Hours worked today: 0
  • BC hours cumulative total: 116–117

Not setting any alarm clocks for at least a week.

BC Diary: Day 9

Yup, back to running on pure willpower today. It’s hard not to be constantly aware of how tired I am. When Tanya and I made the BC staff schedule, I picked the Div 3 WF for myself for today because I thought it was only fair that I take one of the slowest events after my fun with saber the last couple of days.

Now that choice seems serendipitous—nothing will happen quickly or unexpectedly in Div 3 WF. Nothing complicated about the format, no flighting, no strip shortages—I can run this event in my sleep.

There’s a little bit of talk on the BC stage about the board meeting, and a certain level of disbelief at the return of repechage, but not a lot of energy invested in discussion. We don’t much like it, but we’re too tired for outrage at the moment.

While my 16 pools are out, I spend some time watching the trainers. It’s fun to watch them tape—some of them are absolute artists. They’ve been slammed throughout this SN with several relatively serious injuries along with a constant stream of more ordinary sprains and strains and aches and pains and requests for tape jobs and ice.

It’s not just the fencers, either. Quite a few referees are visiting the trainers, too, for taping and stretching out knotted muscles. Spending 8 or 10 days standing on concrete waving one’s arms around is hard on the feet, the ankles, the knees, the back, and the shoulders—and that doesn’t include the effects of stress encountered dealing with coaches and parents. April, the massage therapist, is working on a lot of referees, too, digging into those shoulder knots.

My WF plugs along, with me essentially on auto-pilot—I remember virtually nothing about it. Once it’s done, I realize that the strips that won’t be used tomorrow have already been stripped of their towers and machines, reels, and cords, ready for the crew that will come in to dismantle and pack them in their shipping crates tomorrow.

I help post tomorrow’s seeding—there’s only one small team event and the four Vet WE age levels, so the fencing will go quickly and the teardown can be completed during the afternoon.

We talk about whether we want to try a bout committee dinner, but nobody really has the energy. Many, like me, plan to pick up a meal to go from Ted’s, and eat alone in our quiet, quiet, quiet hotel rooms.

I say goodbye to everybody who’s still around and catch the next shuttle. Back at the hotel, I pack most of my stuff, toddle on down the block to Ted’s and get some bison pot roast to go, and bring it back to my room to eat. I watch a couple of episodes of The Closer on TNT, but fall asleep just as tonight’s new episode starts. I wake up an hour and a half later to turn off the TV and turn out the light.

Stats:

  • Number of individual competitors: 340
  • Number of teams: 22
  • End time:  No idea, but I left around 4:30 or so, I think
  • Hours worked today: 8 or 9
  • BC hours cumulative total: 116–117

Alarm’s set for 5:30—gotta catch a train so I can catch a plane!