Incoming wall, brace yourselves.
So I’ve spent the better part of an hour refreshing the Shin A Lam tag on Tumblr and in general being pretty angry and sad about this situation. I watched the video, and it seemed to me like there was almost certainly a timing error on the last point of that match. However, one does not base their opinions off of emotion, but rather information.
Unlike most modern sports with precise timing, fencing appears to not switch to showing tenths of seconds within a minute of a period ending. This makes watching video footage of the clock and making an informed decision about the legitimacy of the time passed a bit difficult. We don’t know if the clock started or not, because if the correct decision was made obviously the clock would not have changed. Instead, we must turn to clocks that DO show us fractions of seconds in order to determine the situation at hand.
Fencing also happens to be one of the most high-tech sports in the world. When something happens in fencing, the referee and the audience are quick to know about it. When a touch is made, one side of the piste lights up with either green or red, depending on which color the fencer is represented by. If an off-target touch is made on a non-scoring area, a gray light is activated. Most importantly for our purposes, if the clock starts or stops, or if a touch is made, a beep is played through some sort of speaker to indicate the action. This means that, in theory, an audio evaluation of the final point should suffice to determine the legitimacy of the timing mechanism.
Above in the picture you see an audio recording of the final point. Here’s a labeled version:
You’re going to have to take my word for it that those are indeed the sounds in the audio file. Also note the peak indicating the start of the clock is larger than the one indicating the touch. This is due to the fact that “Allez!” is a two-syllable word; the additional decibels are from the referee speaking the second syllable. This means that, while I’m fairly certain that the indicated point is indeed where the beep is, it could be anywhere in that peak, really.
The way I recorded the point actually worked out really well in my favor. The touch beep was right on the 7 second mark of the recording. This means that if the first beep was before the six-second mark, the point was indeed valid. We can see from the red line that the beep was at approximately the 6.15-second mark (error range that I previously mentioned being from ~6.10 to ~6.20). Therefore, indeed, less than one second passed from the start of the timer to the touch being registered by the electronics, and Heidemann deserved to be awarded the point.
However, things are a bit more complex than that. You’ll notice I circled the peak created by the referee giving the command “Allez!”, which is the point at which the two fighters are allowed to begin their attacks. My own analysis shows that this peak begins at 5.92, meaning that Heidemann had ~1.08 seconds in which she could legally begin attacking Shin (Korean name, people, I am using both of the family names here). While the timer did not begin with this command, since the timer is not controlled by the referee but by another person, the fighting did, and the fighting therefore lasted more than one second.
I’m not an expert on the rules of fencing, and maybe someone out there who has more expertise than I could shed some light as to which of these two measurements should be considered valid, but in my eyes this was definitely a controversial, but not inherently incorrect decision. While the images of Shin A Lam crying after the match and the GIF of her standing defiantly on the piste had the ability to sway my own emotions towards being on her side, the logical side of the scenario is much more complicated, and it could easily be argued either way. However, those images and GIFs aren’t going to go away, and they certainly are some of the most powerful to ever come out of any Olympic games.
P.S.: We have to remember that these are some of the best officials in the world. They probably did something similar to what I did in the forty-five minute stretch in which the appeals process took place. It wouldn’t surprise me, the audio file stuff took me like five minutes and the image editing took me another five. The other thirty-five could be explained as the judges debating between the two outcomes I mentioned. Let’s remember, this wasn’t a scenario where a reversal would lead to a replay, it was either Heidemann scored in time and won or she ran out of time and Shin won on the advantage given to her by random draw at the beginning of sudden death. The truth resists simplicity.
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