Section t42 3(b) of the FIE Rules for Competitions - its a thriller, isn’t it? The section covers video-refereeing appeals and you’re probably familiar with how it works. At senior World Cups, Grand Prix, World Championships and Olympics the video review system is an essential part of the action - 2 appeals allowed in a direct elimination fight, one appeal in each leg of a team match. If your appeal is successful you get to keep the appeal. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. There are a few issues regarding how to use your appeal(s) and there have, in my humble opinion, been a few occasions recently where the video review system has been shown to be deeply flawed.
Since the introduction of the video-refereeing system, fencers and coaches have sought to get the best advantage possible from it. Referees understandably took a while to get used to the new technology and there was perhaps a tendency initially, in foil and sabre, to spot “incorrectly executed” actions in slow motion, and after repeated viewings, that would never be picked up at normal speed. Gradually referees have recognised that the breaks, extended preparations and delayed ripostes that they were entirely familiar with seeing and accepting at full speed hadn’t become heinous crimes when seen in slow-mo.
And, of course, some coaches and fencers are better than others at judging when a video appeal has the best chance of being successful. To pick two Italians to demonstrate this, former Italian and Russian national team coach, Stefano Cerioni, has an almost psychic feel for when a video review is called for. His value to the teams he’s coached is undoubtedly enhanced by this ability. By contrast, I watched all of Italian superstar Andrea Baldini’s fights at the London Olympics, where he finished fourth, and I don’t think he got one right all day.
But my beef with the system is not that it brings an additional requirement to the range of skills a fencer needs to succeed but that the system is fundamentally flawed. Plenty of other sports use video technology and I think fencing needs to take a look at how their video review systems differ from ours.
In the vast majority of sports, unlike fencing, when there is a video review of the action it is carried out entirely by someone other than the referee (or umpire). Usually the person reviewing the action is not at court or pitch-side but completely disconnected from the field of play and their view is, effectively, only of the video footage. There is no involvement with the players and the only connection between the referee and the reviewer is by a microphone link. There is little to zero involvement by the referee in the decision-making process regarding the video review. Contrast this with fencing, where the referee reviews the action along with the video consultant. The referee’s decision is being challenged and yet he plays a major part in reviewing it. Can this really be the best way to ensure an impartial viewing of the video footage? Even if the video consultant disagrees with the original decision he’s got to get the referee to see it his way and he’s got to do that right next to the piste with the fencers and coaches looking on, often getting quite “animated”. For me, this is a crazy approach. Surely the idea of any video review system in sport should be to remove the official from the decision-making process when his original decision is being queried and to allow the crucial judgements, the most critical decisions, to be made away from the heat of battle.
I firmly believe that our technological advances can only achieve their full potential if they are applied in the correct setting and, at the moment, I don’t think fencing gets this right. It is undoubtedly far better than no video review system but it needs to make the next step if fencing really wants to ensure the highest quality of officiating at its showcase events.