Olympic drama: Shin A. Lam vs fencing admin

Britta Heidemann vs. A. Lam Shin in the women’s indiv. épée semifinal


Returning to the scene of some old crimes, I checked out the BBC’s Olympic fencing coverage, and it is reasonable online and via the red button. But briefly, prior to the main story (for which see below)… in other old, bad old news, we’re hearing stories of dodgy UK team selection issues. Apparently one fencer had failed to register his details with the selectors in time. Odd that; you’d have thought that during his last few years going to loads of foreign competitions and becoming a top British fencer (impossible without UK governing body co-operation) they’d have got A: the message that he was kind of interested in going to the Olympics, and B: his phone number. As the deadline approached, wouldn’t someone have enquired about an obvious missing entry? With just that fencer there was another controversy over whether he had or hadn’t got enough points to qualify, and he wasn’t the only one. This of course, or to avoid all this, is why some countries nail the crude requirements to the noticeboard and say hang the subtle considerations, 1, 2, 3 in this race will go.

That was the background. When I got to the live feed, what did I see? A hall full of spectators and just one lonely competitor sitting on the edge of the piste. For ages and ages and ages.

She had to sit in front of the crowd like this for over an hour 😦 . They did give her water and a towel but no cushion.

Scooting back through the live feed the story emerged of a semi-final in the women’s indiv. epée…

One contestant was (see top photo) a big right-hander using a pistol grip and a German style. She even had what I now recognise as a German face. I’ve always liked the delicate way German women handle their clanky, old-fashioned-sounding language.

And they’re off: Heidemann on L, Shin on R.

Her opponent of fairly average height and also right-handed, was a pommeller. In other words she’d fixed an “old-fashioned” straight grip on her épée, usually held near the rear end. This was like a gladiator with an ordinary sword, against one with the trident kit (net not included). I understood the pistol grip.

Heidemann’s pistol grip.

I seriously doubt whether anyone except the Italians and the Hungarians really understand pommelling. It’s really weird. It’s centre of gravity is a foot in front of your hand, and it feels like a totally different weapon. You feel a bit like an eel – perhaps you might also want to imagine you’re an Italian – but it’s great fun and you can make it work.

The straight grip held towards the end: “pommelling” as used by Shin.

We’ll join the fight with just one second remaining on the clock. All the drama has yet to take place, and the vast majority of the elapsed time. The scores are equal, the electric box had been asked to randomly pick who’d win if neither was ahead when time ran out, and the lot had fallen upon Shin Lam.

Shin from South Korea is pinned to the back line so can’t retreat. On the “Allez”, Britta Heidemann flings herself forward and both fencers land a hit. Only singles count so they do it again. Still one second on the clock though. Same launch from the left which lands again, as does the stop-hit from the right.

Immediately after the last of the three actions that supposedly took place in the final second of the fight.

The clock still says one second left. That just cannot be right. Even if each attack took half a second to arrive each time, it couldn’t have been less, and there’s reaction times to be added in. Perhaps because of that, a few moments after the second action was completed, the clock decides to change to zero. This means Shin Lam has won. But no. The clock mysteriously clicks back again so there’s one second left. Uh?! Later we were to be told that Shin had committed some minor infringement in the less than half a second that occupied the second action, and you cannot win on an infringement, which is why the extra second had been added. I didn’t notice either an infringement nor the referee’s announcement of one.

So the final “joust” takes place…

The final action? Possibly.

…and this time only Heidemann lands a hit.

Heidemann claims victory.

Shin feeling not just disappointed…

…But robbed.


If Shin leaves the piste it signals she’s accepted the result.

So she sits on the edge of the piste for the 75 minutes it takes for the wrong decision to be confirmed.

Here she taps herself on her head to try to keep her composure.

Eventually they try to get her to go…

OK lady… if you’d like to move along now…

That’s right… just over here if you would…

Shin has the majority of the crowd’s full sympathy.

…and she’s finally “helped” from the piste.

[Update 24th August 2012:
Steve Johnson has made an astonishing analysis
of the fight, including accurate measurement of exactly how many metres forward from her rear line Shin stole, and careful checking of all the fractions of seconds. He also gives us links to the video http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4af061cT6E8#t=0s .

That is the start of the last-four stage, with the t=0s at the end signifying zero seconds. The whole thing lasts 3hrs 23mins. By replacing the t=0s by something else you can jump straight to any point. For example t=2070s jumps straight to the start of the Heidemann vs Shin fight.]

Anyway, with her coach’s help Shin prepares for the bronze medal fight-off.

Her opponent is the 6’ 1” Yujie Sun, the current world silver medalist, from China.

(The second official from the left is I think a Welsh bloke who I probably used to fence. He’s to act as ref’s assistant here and almost certainly had nothing to do with the kerfuffle.)

She gets off to a smashing start and soon draws ahead…

A nice flèche attack from Shin on the right.

And another one…

A nice stop hit in the high line.

Another flèche.

This time to the toe.

And a duck-stop hit, turning the height difference to her advantage (don’t try this at home – probably not the previous one either!)

By the break before the final phase, the fuss might never have happened.

A coach has to try to bully the bureaucracy one moment and cheer up one of his little girls the next!

But then…

And this.

It’s been announced that the world governing body for fencing: the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime, is to award Shin Lam a special medal. But it does not make her feel better. She weighs 57kg, she’s 25, and her height is 1.67m (5’6″). I predict she’ll have a lot of support when she competes in the women’s épée team copetition on Saturday 4th August!

[Update 17th Aug 2012:
The Sth. Korean women’s épée team got the silver. Had Shin Lam got a medal, Sth. Korea would have leapfrogged Great Britain in the all-time women’s Olympic fencing table to 12th, all those S. Korea medals having been won since 2008. GB’s last was the steel-wristed Gillian Sheen’s foil gold in 1956. The women’s team épée was not held in 2008 (2 of the 12 possible fencing events are dropped each time by rotation) so Shin Lam couldn’t compete in the epee team. She was the Asian champion in 2010. Britta Heidemann was current Olympic champion from 2008.]

So Shin came fourth, and won… the heartfelt sympathy of the crowd, and is to get a special medal from the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime. Yujie Sun on left wins the bronze.

Heidemann lost to the Ukranian Shemyakina in the final.

Heidemann whips her foot back…

…but a couple of frames earlier, we see it was too late to stop the toe hit. (Serves her right for parrying octave! She should have used seconde 🙂 .)

Shemyakina shows she can do a duck-stop hit too on her way to the gold.

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5 Responses to Olympic drama: Shin A. Lam vs fencing admin

  1. Great post, I just found a video of the controversial fight on my page, but I just read this all the way through. Great to hear from someone who really knows the sport!

  2. Pleased you thought it was at least OK – and that you got to the end of it! Her team got the silver on Saturday and they looked pretty happy as a team. I clicked on your link above and saw you’ve posted on it too. Having thought about it for a few days, I suppose she’s not that unlucky a person really, compared to some! But she is a fine fencer. Mind you, some nations wouldn’t get that openly emotional. Made for great TV and a great Olympic moment for those of us weren’t sure if we could get that interested any more.

    I’ve had a look at your post on the Dylan concert you attended in Nîmes; it did take me back, oddly not so much to when I saw him at Blackbush but when I nearly went to an open air concert in France. (Rest of it on your comments!)

  3. Aardman says:

    Go ahead and call me sexist. And accuse me of objectifying women. But I think I’m just saying out loud what a lot of people are thinking: Aside from being a very good athlete, I can’t help but notice that Shin A Lam is very pretty, as in movie star pretty. Even when she’s bawling her eyes out.

    And thanks for explaining the nuances of the sport to us fencing ignoramuses.

    • You may be right, there, Aardman! I have started to feel rather guilty myself about certain aspects of this post. I originally thought I was just supporting and publicising Shin’s cause, but there are aspects of this episode that make it engaging for the same reason that movies with glamourous actors are engaging. There are few things as fascinating as an emotional fight between two women. I nearly saw one at Madison Square Gardens many years ago. It wasn’t in the arena but on the pavement nearby. I’d never experienced a crowd so hard to fight one’s way to the front off.

      After writing the post I realised that Heidemann reminded me of Anya Fichtel. (I was reminded of Fichtel by the maestress Vezzali’s claim to have been inspired by her. Odd when you compare their styles, but Vezzali wasn’t the only one to find Fichtel inspiring.) Fichtel was a real pin-up in every sense of the word, and she revelled in it.

      But it’s August, so perhaps we can send our consciences on holiday and enjoy every aspect of the olympics! 🙂

      As a final afterthought, I think this was the only fencing event where South Korea failed to win a medal.

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