That many fencing referees like to race to see who can finish their pools or direct elimination quadrants first is not surprising. After all, most start out as—and many still are—competitive fencers. Rare is the event when I don’t get at least a couple of calls asking for permission to use an adjacent strip “so we can make things go faster.” Most of the time, I say yes, because I usually need events to progress as quickly as possible—there’s a different event that needs more strips for its DEs or another just closing registration that’ll need a dozen or two strips for its pools.
We—bout committee, assigners, referees—are focused on keeping things moving, minimizing wait times during and between rounds. Most épée fencers are familiar with the “Alperstein Method” for running a DE quadrant, in which fencers are called early to test their weapons so that they can hook up immediately to fence as soon as a strip opens up. Grouping strips by pod has made it easier for assigners to group referees by quadrant with enough geographic diversity that conflicts are seldom an issue, significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to turn events from pools to DEs. We expect to reduce that time even further as FencingTime’s auto-assign function becomes more usable and assigners learn how it works.
A couple of years ago, there was even the Process Improvement Task Force, which looked at and analyzed BC procedures to see where there was room for streamlining tasks. Figuring out how to make tournaments go faster is not just a matter of friendly rivalry among referees or the obsession of detail-oriented BC geeks—it’s become institutionally ingrained as our entry numbers have grown ever larger.
There are a few limits: a pool shouldn’t use more than one extra strip for doubling, and pools of 6 or fewer shouldn’t be doubled at all. And there’s not much point to one DE quadrant using extra strips to finish up more quickly when extra strips aren’t available to the other quadrants—that simply means that the faster group has to sit around and wait for everybody else to catch up.
Which brings us to a question worth asking: how does this emphasis on going faster affect our athletes?
Now it may well be that fencers don’t perceive much of this push for speed, that the amount of waiting built into our tournament formats feels about the same as it always has. Maybe when you balance our increasingly streamlined procedures with our increasingly large tournaments, it’s essentially a wash.
Or perhaps we’re all just frogs simmering in a huge pot and haven’t noticed how much our tournament experience has changed over the past decade or so.
In a perfect world, fencers at a well-run tournament should expect to be able to watch all of their pool competitors, to get a look at their different styles, to see which actions they tend to use and how other fencers react to those actions. Getting pulled away from this information-gathering to test weapons or to fence one opponent while others in the pool are still bouting inhibits this learning process and may even damage a fencer’s prospects in the tournament. A long succession of tournaments under such constrictions could even hamper our fencers’ long-term competitive development.
In a not-so-perfect world, we ought at least to be able to have this discussion, but right now running national tournaments in a way that provides competitors with a high-quality experience is not an option. Running national tournaments is all about survival. It’s not merely fencers surviving eight rounds of DEs, or officials surviving two six- or seven-hour events in a single day, or bout committee making it through three or four conecutive 14- or 15-hour days—it’s the survival of the USFA itself.
We don’t have the option of adopting a more sensible tournament structure right now because the USFA’s finances are so dependent on tournament income. Membership dues bring in around $1 million and tournament income a little over $1 million, approximately the total international programs deficit for 2011–2012. (These are very round numbers—for more precise figures, refer to recent USFA financial reports.)
Were we to reduce the size of national tournaments to more reasonable size, to allow, say, 8- to 10-hour competition days and a more civilized pace, we would lose income essential to keeping the USFA functioning. Our shaky finances have trapped us in a broken tournament structure, pressured to keep growing events that are already too big, already stressing both our personnel and equipment resources.
We can’t simply keep going on the way we have for the past few years—the way we are going is unsustainable, and we’re losing too many experienced people to the stress and frustration. We desperately need a new revenue model to support a more workable tournament structure, but can we—will we—develop both before the whole rickety USFA contraption collapses under its own weight?