You can’t learn fencing from a book.
Every few weeks, we’ll get a keen fencer at SSC who asks if there is a book that explains some aspect of fencing, like how to make a cut, take a parry, or what to do off the start line. We get these requests a lot, and we generally refer them to the stack of fencing manuals that we have strewn around the lounge.
It soon becomes readily apparent that while books can provide a lot of background information on how to fence, there is no substitute for actually doing it. Detailed explanations on the bio-mechanics of the lunge are a poor substitute for actually practising lunges and having someone knowledgeable refine your form.
The same goes for refereeing. There are plenty of fencing rules (check out http://www.britishfencing.com/governance/rules/fie-rules/ for the English translations of the official FIE rules). The fundamental role of a referee is to apply these rules to the bout.
Problem is, the rules don’t provide enough detail to cover all the richness of what happens in a real bout. No set of rules is ever likely to do this. So real-life referees have standardised interpretations of the rules that they apply in bouts. These interpretations cover the nuances in real life bouts that the written rules don’t, or can’t.
Take the classic example of attack-counterattack at the start of the bout. From the FIE Technical Rulebook (translation courtesy of British Fencing):
T.7.1 The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target, preceding the launching of the lunge or flèche (cf. t.56ss, t.75ss).
T.8.3 Counter-attacks are offensive or offensive–defensive actions made during the offensive action of the opponent.
T.75.1 Any attack properly executed (cf. t.7) must be parried, or completely avoided, and the phrase must be continuous.
T.80.1 When during a phrase both fencers are hit simultaneously there is either a simultaneous action or a double-hit.
T.80.3 The fencer who is attacked is alone counted as hit:
a) If he makes a stop hit on his opponent’s simple attack;
b) If, instead of parrying, he attempts to avoid the hit and does not succeed in so doing;
c) If, after making a successful parry, he makes a momentary pause (delayed riposte) which gives his opponent the right to renew the attack (redoublement, or remise or reprise);
d) If, during a compound attack, he makes a stop hit without being in time;
e) If, having his point ‘in line’ (cf. t.10) and being subjected to a beat or a taking of the blade (prise de fer) which deflects his blade, he attacks or places his point in line again instead of parrying a direct hit made by his opponent.
T.80.4 The fencer who attacks is alone counted as hit:
a) If he initiated his attack when his opponent had his point ‘in line’, without deflecting the opponent’s weapon. Referees must ensure that a mere contact of the blades is not considered as sufficient to deflect the opponent’s blade.
b) If he attempts to find the blade, does not succeed (because of a derobement) and continues the attack.
c) If, during a compound attack, he allows his opponent to find the blade, and continues the attack while his opponent ripostes immediately.
d) If, during a compound attack, he bends his arm or makes a momentary pause, during which time the opponent makes a stop hit or an attack while the attacker continues his own attack.
e) If, during a compound attack, he is stop-hit one period of fencing time (temps d’escrime) before he makes his final movement.
Whew! There are plenty of other sub-rules defining simple, indirect and compound attacks but the main rules are above. So – have a crack at separating the calls in the video below based on those rules:
Plenty of tough calls were made in that video, calls that less experienced referees would have abstained from or called ‘simultaneous’. These calls are tough because they require a referee to recognise actions that are not easily described by written rules, relying instead on interpretations that say that this action is a preparation while another is an attack. Further, these interpretations must be the same across all FIE referees.
So if the interpretations are so important, why aren’t they written down in the rules?
One reason is that there are so many situations that the interpretations cover that trying to write them all down is impractical. Another is that, like with other aspects of fencing, the written word is a poor substitute for actually seeing it in action. A third reason is that the interpretations change from season to season – how bouts were refereed even in 2008 is markedly different from bouts in 2012, a single Olympic cycle.
The upshot is that there is no substitute for refereeing under supervision and watching calls being made correctly by other referees, on a regular basis. Bad referees read the rules and try to apply them from first principles to the situation. Infuriatingly bad referees take interpretations from previous seasons and refuse to update their interpretations for the current one.
Good referees make a lot of regular, up-to-date empirical observations so they can correctly apply the rules to the situation they see before them. With the current availability of sabre videos from top competitions freely available on the web, there is no excuse for any referee, even those in the murkiest backwaters of the fencing world, to be less than competent in making the right calls in sabre.