Why Do Tournaments Run So Late?

originally published as the “Countering” column, American Fencing, vol. 61, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

Q: Why, oh why, do national tournaments run so late, sometimes past midnight?

A: At the first Summer Nationals I worked bout committee, Austin 2000 (4,217 individual entries, 236 teams), late nights were unusual occurrences—fencing continued as late as 8:00 or 8:30 pm on only two or three nights.

The few occasions when tournament days ended far later were usually the result of extraordinary circumstances. The March 2002 NAC in Reno (1093 individual entries), for instance, lasted past 1:00 am when our equipment failed to arrive for setup until about 2:00 pm on the first day. The heavily front-loaded schedule for the 2003 Austin Summer Nationals (5,483 individual entries, 209 teams), combined with larger-than-expected numbers and extraordinary equipment problems, resulted in enough very late nights that it is unanimously acknowledged by BC staff as the worst-ever Summer Nationals. (That was also the Summer Nationals with the men’s foil DE table of 512.) Our second-worst Summer Nationals came in Atlanta 2006 (6,252 individual entries, 362 teams), again with much larger-than-expected entry numbers.

As entry numbers for both NACs and Summer Nationals grew over the past decade, we tournament officials worked on improving our schedules and procedures to handle the increasingly long and complicated days: according to the February report of the NAC Process Improvement Task Force, we now average 47 minutes from close of registration to the start of pools, and 23 minutes between the end of pools and the beginning of the direct elimination round.

But two days at the 2010 Atlanta SN lasted past midnight. So far this season, late NAC nights are the rule rather than the exception: Cincinnati end times were 10:15, approximately 8:30, approximately 8:00, and approximately 6:00. November end times in Milwaukee were 7:48, 10:31, 8:40, and 7:24, while those in January in Dallas were 8:30, 11:30, 10:30, and 6:40. What’s even more remarkable is that we consider ourselves lucky with those end times—November and January could both have had end times well past midnight, according to our projections.

So why now are competition days at national tournaments so long?

Our days are long because our tournaments are big.

In Milwaukee, we had 1,860 entries in 18 events; ten years ago, the November NAC in Dallas had 12 events with 993 entries. This January in Dallas, the 2,592 checked in entries (not to mention the 3,084 originally entered!) are more than double the number who showed up to fence a decade ago in Greenville. At this writing in early February, we have 2,272 individuals and 74 teams entered for the 2011 Junior Olympics, compared to 1,321 in Sacramento 2000, where I was a bout committee trainee working my first national tournament.

Of course, we use larger venues now, with more strips, more scoring machines, and more referees, sometimes—as in January—even borrowing equipment to have enough for tournaments. But larger spaces and more resources aren’t enough—it simply takes a certain minimum number of hours to fence out all the rounds of a competition. The large numbers mean that our schedules are far tighter than they used to be; there is no slack for delays caused by injury time-outs, equipment problems, or even just fencers who fence more slowly than we expect.

In almost every tournament I’ve chaired for the past five years, there have been a couple of days where we had enough entries so that first thing in the morning we expected more pools than we had strips. Typically, there would be a large men’s epee or foil event with, say 39 pools, and a smaller saber event of about 15 pools, scheduled to start in the morning on 44 strips. The saber would be flighted, of course, but even so, we’d need to lose 3 pools through no-shows at check-in to avoid triple-flighting the saber. We always got the no-shows we needed—until last season, when I twice had to triple-flight saber events.

It’s not just the early morning starts, either. If those big early morning events finish their pools more slowly than expected, that means that there may not be strips available for the next event coming in, which means that the events starting in the middle of the day might not be out of the way in time for the afternoon events to start, which is not so bad when the afternoon event is 17 veteran women’s foil fencers. But when it’s 150 junior women’s foil fencers who can’t even start their pools until 4:00 pm, we’re looking at a very late night.

I’ve come to think of the stress on officials over the past five years—14-hour days, lack of adequate sleep, rushed or missing meals—as a kind of early-warning system for the effects of fencing’s growth. Until last season, it was mostly tournament officials who had to deal with the unpleasant aspects of that growth. But now, with triple-flighted saber events, flighted epee and foil events, and large events not able to start before late afternoon, our growth is inexorably —and adversely—affecting the quality of our national tournaments. Until we find a better way to handle that growth, whether it’s through more regional tournaments, caps on NAC entries, or some other means, those late, late competition nights will continue.

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