o.9 1. The program must. . . . be arranged in such a way that no fencer is obliged to participate in events for more than 12 hours in 24. In any case, no pool, bout or match may begin after midnight, or at any time when it can be foreseen that with certainty that it will end after midnight. [Emphasis in original]
This is one of the rules of fencing I’ve had to become more aware of in recent years as our national events have grown ever larger. I’ve never had to violate the 12-in-24 hour limit in event length, though we’ve come as close as 11-1/2 hours with a big épée event. There have been a few occasions, though, when we’ve pretended at Summer Nationals that the rule says it’s okay to run very late as long as the last bout or match starts by midnight. (After all, lightning could have struck the fencers and referee dead before the stroke of midnight—we didn’t know with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t have happened.)
It’s a reasonable rule, though. To win the gold medal in a field of 175–225, not an uncommon event size at SN, takes considerable stamina and focus. It’s around two and a half hours or so for the typical five or six bouts in the pool round. Then if strips are available immediately and the referee assigners aren’t too busy, 20 to 30 minutes to turn the event and get the direct elimination round started. Those bouts, depending on the weapon and the number of strips used, might take two or three hours to complete, with the final round of 8 another hour (if saber) or 90 minutes (if foil or épée). And that assumes nothing goes wrong—no injury delays, no too-slow other events occupying strips too long, no referee shortages. For fencers to maintain physical reserves and concentration through that many hours is challenging. The longer the event takes, the more difficult those last few bouts—often the most demanding of the day—become, and the more likely that exhaustion could lead to injury. While endurance is certainly an important factor in our competitions, it is not the primary component of our sport, as it is in, say, the Western States Endurance Run.
o.9 is a rule intended to protect fencers.
Tournament officials, however, are afforded no such protection.
Consider that same event with a field of 175–225. In a pool of 7, each competitor will fence in 6 of the 21 bouts. But the referee (increasingly a single referee at SN, given the hiring problems, about which more later) will referee all 21 of those bouts. If it’s saber, the event is likely to be double-flighted, so the referee might work two pools without much of a break. If the referee is fast, she is expected to check to see whether other pools are behind and need help to catch up; if she’s lucky, she may get to go to lunch. If she’s among the last of the referees to finish a pool, she’ll be told to go eat lunch quickly but take no longer than 20 minutes. When she returns, she’ll be sent out to a pod of 4 strips as part of a crew of 4 to 7 referees with a quadrant of the DE tableau; they will referee 40 or 50 bouts among them. And the better they are at refereeing that day, the longer they will be asked to stay as the bouts get more competitive and difficult to call.
And that’s just the morning event.
The physical toll is considerable—standing for hours on concrete, waving those arms around signaling calls. You’re looking at sore feet, sore back, sore joints, achy shoulders and arms, tight neck muscles. As the day wears on, the mental effects appear—actions are harder to see, proper applications of rules are harder to remember, tempers are shorter. If that weren’t already enough, referees get to handle all this while a few fencers and parents and coaches and other spectators take it upon themselves to instruct referees on their moral, intellectual, and visual deficiencies, often at close quarters and high volume.
We BC staff have it a bit easier. We arrive earlier and stay later, but at least we get a better mix of running around and sitting—not so much of the deadly standing on concrete. If we don’t have enough time for lunch, it’s easier for us to bring a plate of food down from the lunchroom to eat at more leisure (though sometimes a bit more leisure than ideal according to food safety standards). We don’t have so much to do during pools, though that is often offset by the fact that we might each be running 2 to 4 events simultaneously. But just like the referees, we get to exercise our interpersonal skills extensively throughout the tournament.
(I don’t want to ignore the armorers and trainers, who arrive even earlier than the BC. But aside from watching long armory lines, the techs at work on setup and teardown, and the endless requests for ice and taping at the medical station, I don’t know as much specific detail of their tournament days.)
So why, you wonder, do I present this catalog of misery and woe? Didn’t I write just a few weeks ago of how much I love running huge fencing tournaments?
That’s exactly my point. One of the requirements for running—or even just working at—Summer Nationals is being capable of running or working at Summer Nationals. The current conditions make working SN more and more difficult.
When I started working BC, we had 6 (six!) computers and operators at SN, instead of the three plus team computers we run now. We often had three or four BC co-chairs—not trading off every few days as we do now, but working simultaneously and rotating days off. That’s how I learned to chair, as a matter of fact—working with a couple of more experienced co-chairs. One would manage strips, another would deal with complaints and protests and black cards and other such fun stuff, and I learned by watching and working with both. It was a great system—good for us, good for training, and good for the tournament.
Why don’t we do that any longer? We can’t. We don’t have enough experienced staff. It’s not that we’re not working on it. We bring in half a dozen new BC trainees every season seeking new tournament staff, and we usually end up with at least two or three worth developing. (Not everyone turns out to be suitable for BC work, and quite a few discover it’s not what they thought and choose not to continue.) We’ve got a plan for identifying more potential staff from those running ROCs and SYCs, and are working on creating and updating training materials to make available on a new BC website, to help those learning at the local level. But what we don’t have is a good system for developing current experienced staff into new BC chairs: When we have barely enough staff available to run a tournament, we can’t schedule an extra person to work alongside the chair to learn the job.
There are lots of reasons people aren’t available for tournaments—family obligations, work conflicts, too few vacation days, etc. That’s to be expected. But there’s a deeper problem that’s growing, affecting officials and volunteers at all levels in the organization, but most apparent to me with BC staff and referees. Brad Baker today linked to a relevant YouTube video about what motivates us, and I wrote a little about some of the same ideas in my first book fifteen years ago. (Actually, years ago I even keynoted a conference along with the video’s speaker, Dan Pink.) What motivates those of us who volunteer as fencing officials is a desire to perform our functions well, to get better at what we do, to feel as though we are doing something truly useful.
Under our current tournament conditions, this sense of purpose is harder and harder to find. As the exhaustion builds up into genuine cognitive impairment, we know we are unable to perform at the high level we want to. We feel we have no control, no ability to improve matters, and we lose all hope of finding real purpose in the work we volunteer to do.
That’s why we are losing volunteers, why SN is so difficult to hire for, why so many newer recruits drop away. And that’s a major challenge for me right now as TC chair—to try to find a way to keep our most valuable and experienced staff working with us.
Our entire tournament structure was designed years ago for a much smaller fencing population with much different demographics. Our tournament needs do not match up with our available resources (and however we got to this situation, it will take years to remedy), and our qualification paths are a mess. We need to determine what is necessary to serve this new, both younger and older (just look at those Youth and Vet numbers!), larger population, to reinvent USA Fencing to serve what we are now and will become, and not what we used to be.
A few days ago, somebody on one of the tournament structure/qualification path threads on fencing.net inevitably said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Don’t kid yourself—our tournament structure has been broken for years. I just hope we can hold enough of our volunteers together long enough to find a way to rebuild it.