The Big Time

In the weeks since this year’s Summer Nationals in Columbus, I’ve been pondering a few of the arguments I’ve heard for keeping USA Fencing national tournaments as large and overwhelming as they’ve become over the past few years.

Naturally, I’ve decided they are idiotic.

Take for instance, the idea that national tournaments should remain gigantic because their size demonstrates to the competitors that they have “hit the big time.”

I certainly understand the reaction. I remember when my daughters and I first started traveling to SN and NACs. We were impressed by pretty much everything—the number of strips, the number of competitors, the armory line, the long wall full of vendor displays, the length of the competition day. It was really cool, and doing well enough to win a medal in this environment was definitely a way bigger deal than it was in any of the local or regional events we’d seen before.

After a few events, though, even at that very first SN, the novelty and excitement moderated a bit. We began to wonder at mysterious delays—the long waits between rounds and even after the end of an event, the all-too-frequent announcement of the award ceremony as much as two or three hours after the gold medal bout. (After I began working BC myself, I learned this was because back then (c. 1999), part of the BC chair’s job was to find the people to present the medals—if it was the middle of the day, the likeliest suspects were probably at work coaching or reffing, the BC chair was trying to get the next event out and often got distracted enough to forget the pending presentation(s). The creation of our dedicated awards staff is, for me, right up there with lettering the pods for keeping the BC chair’s job doable as our events grew ever larger.)

Using sheer size as a metric for having made it to the big time strikes me as exhibiting a lack of imagination. Other major events in our sport manage to be impressive without being so huge and unwieldy. The NCAA fencing championships have 144 athletes—only 24 in each weapon. The fencing competitions at the Olympic Games are not much bigger. Not many would dispute that the athletes competing in those events have made the big time.

But those smaller big-time events can do quite a bit to make those athletes feel special, not to mention to make their spectators feel they are watching something special. (For one thing, there are actual spectators, people who come specifically to see the competitions and aren’t just watching because they would have been there anyway.) There are opening and closing ceremonies, awards presentations in the main venue where everyone can see them, instead of off in a corner where they won’t be in the way of continuing events. Athletes and officials are introduced. There are sponsors—not just sponsors with banners hung on the walls or above strips, but sponsors who provide material goods—receptions for athletes, coaches, and officials; water and snacks throughout the day; bags (or in the case of the Olympics, duffle bags full) of goodies—clothing and accessories, and souvenirs to take back home as mementos of having made the big time.

There are lots of ways we could make our athletes feel special from their accomplishments at the national level. But cramming as many as we can into a limited space over a limited number of days with officials who are so exhausted they can’t do their jobs as well as they want to isn’t anywhere near the top of my list.