Monday, 30 July 2012

Treat those impostors both the same

Lots of fun at the Olympic fencing this evening - I take one evening off and the whole competition falls apart… just like life. The sooner you people accept my (largely) benevolent dictatorship, the better. You have nothing to lose except your Top Gear DVDs, hipster glasses and elasticated trouser cuffs.

The excitement this evening came at the end of Shin v Heidemann women's epee semi-final. After a clearly rather defensive fight which went into extra time at 5-5 (you win by scoring 15 and have 9 minutes in which to do it), Shin needed to hold Heidemann off for one minute, having won the toss for priority. Whoever scored in that minute won: no score and the win goes to Shin. She thought she'd got it - but the clock was reset to 1 second left and Heidemann managed a hit. Shin then burst into tears and quite rightly stayed in the arena - under the gaze of 27 cameras and 8000 people - for nigh on an hour while her team appealed the decision, before going on to lose the bronze medal fight too.

Photo: Hannah Johnston

It all looks very dramatic, and it is. But I thought that I'd explain what the day is like for an Olympic fencer, as I'm backstage helping to look after them.

They turn up with their team mates, coaches and sparring partners. The first place they go is the training hall, where they've booked pistes by country for sparring and lessons: it's open 24 hours per day. Then it's into the pre-warm up room. This is where the tension really builds. It's a big room with a lot of metal pistes set out, and TV screens showing the action out on the field of play. Fencers from every country are there. Some take lessons, some obsessively practice a single move, some wander round chatting to their team-mates or to rivals - they're all on the World Cup circuit and know each other well. Which doesn't necessarily mean that they like each other. Nobody does anything complicated: a few minutes before an Olympic match is not the time to try a new move.

Everybody looks very cool. Despite the kit being essentially identical, they find ways to show off their muscles, to lope around looking invincible or relaxed. Like most top sports people, massive earphones are de rigeur at the moment. I can also exclusively reveal that under the fencing kit, the Brazilians wear bright yellow and green patriotic underpants (over their Brazilians, one might say): stripping down to your undercrackers either demonstrates how unconcerned or how ripped one is.

After the pre-warm up room, the athlete is escorted into the warm-up area. S/he's allowed a coach and one sparring partner with them - no team-mates, masseurs or anyone else. They're reunited with the weapons which have been checked for faults and legality (they even get x-rayed for microscopic flaws). The atmosphere is quiet and thoughtful - no whooping and shouting. There are attendants (people like me) in there to help but we're under orders no to speak to the fencers unless they address us - this is where they get into 'the zone'. After 20 minutes, it's into the Wireless room to be fitted with the (obviously) wireless scoring equipment which sends signals to the central computer and lights up the fencer's mask when s/he scores. After that, they're into the Call Room. This is where the terror sets in. The only people in there are the fencers - staring into each other's eyes - and a coach each. It's a small, very bare room and there's nowhere to hide and nothing else to do. When the teams are in there, the atmosphere is utterly electric. After a few minutes, they're escorted onto the piste, announced over the PA system and the world suddenly becomes a very, very lonely place. The winner faces a 2 or 4 hour break (after the drug test and media appearances) before the whole thing starts again: the loser is escorted out to face his or her coaches, team-mates and friends.

Kipling's 'If…' tells us that 'If you meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those impostors just the same… Yours is the Earth and everything in it / And, which is more, you'll be a Man, my Son!'. It's an illiterate piece of doggerel, which epitomises an approach which is entirely antithetical to the kind of pressure these athletes are under. Shin's reaction was extreme, but entirely understandable. I don't know what happened with the timing reset, but to her, a potential gold medal in the sport's biggest event suddenly became fourth, which is basically nothing, whatever Kipling says. She had a (defensive) plan, it had paid off, and suddenly something outside her control had snatched it all away. I can't say I know how she feels: I always expect to lose so don't take it hard when I inevitably do (and obviously I've never approached these heights), but I do empathise. Or rather sympathise: sudden defeat is always exciting (I've taken plenty of evocative pictures such as this one, this one, and my favourite one), but most of us will never understand what a massive blow it is. I've never competed at this level because I don't have the ruthlessness and drive to push myself and destroy an opponent - but neither will I ever have to suffer the agonies of just - or unjust - defeat. It's bad enough when a ref can't spot my second-intention attacks at the Shropshire Closed: an Olympic defeat is beyond my emotional range. We'll forget about it after one day - but this 1 second might end, or at least damage, Shin's career. Not because she's done anything wrong, but because of the psychological blow inflicted by the sudden reversal of fortune.


Amy said...

I wasn't there, but from what I understand, you're misreading Shin's actions. She was told by her coaches not to leave the strip: the Korean federation was ready to appeal the arbitrage committee's decision if it went against her (as it did, and they did), and once you've left the strip, the appeal can't be made. Don't blame her for her reaction, or at least not for sitting down on the strip to have it.

Aside from that, I really appreciated the view from backstage. I have a lot more experience with losing than I like to admit, but I still do take it hard.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Amy. Thanks for this - will edit a little. I certainly didn't mean to blame Shin. Whether the timekeepers were right or wrong, she was right to feel aggrieved and stay where she was while a ruling was made.

Anonymous said...

Nice insight.
Of course she was right to be aggrieved. Pity the video evidence wasn't heeded.

Wouldn't be surprised if her coaches reaction aided the judges rigidness. Subconsciously defensive I mean, not that they would consciously punish her for his passionate plea.

Karen said...

What a fascinating insight into the Olympic set-up and this incident in particular!

It's hard to imagine how Shin must be feeling. The stakes are certainly very high.