Fencing Officiating – Refereeing Dry Bouts I

The dry bout (a bout fenced without electrical scoring equipment) represents a significant challenge for the referee and judges: how do you both fairly and accurately assess the results of the fencing so that the better fencer in the bout wins? The answer is a mix of several factors, including organization with well defined responsibilities, training, and the ability to recognize fencing actions and hits. This series of articles examines the referee’s role in the bout.

In the not so distant past, referees were called Directors or Presidents of the Jury. Both of these titles capture what the referee does in ways different than the modern title of referee. Director implies that the official directs and controls the operation of the contest, an organizational role with clear responsibilities. President of the Jury acknowledges the role of the referee as part of a voting body that recognizes the actions, interprets them, and sees the hits. These two roles are critical to what the referee does and to the efficient, accurate, and fair conduct of the bout.

When we think about the role of the referee, it is vital to understand that the bout is about the fencers, not the officials. The referee and judges create a structure for determining who wins, but that structure should never obscure or diminish the actual combat between two fencers. The officials facilitate, not dominate.

The referee in the dry bout manages a team of 5 people, himself as referee, and four judges. Two judges stationed behind the fencer on the referee’s left watch the target of the fencer on the right to observe whether a hit arrives. Two judges stationed behind the fencer on the referee’s right watch the target of the fencer on the left to observe whether a hit arrives. The referee watches both fencers’ targets for hits, and determines which fencer has the right of way (in foil or sabre) or which fencer arrives first on target (in epee).

To do this effectively the referee must move with the action so that the two fencers remain centered in front of him or her. Ideally the referee should be as far from the strip as practical – 10 feet is a good starting point. This distance allows the referee to easily see movement on the part of both fencers, key to establishing priority of actions. The reality in many clubs and venues is that as many strips as possible are packed into as small a space as possible, with the result that referees work within 3 feet of the strip edge. Not only is this unsafe, but it virtually ensures that the referee’s calls often will be influenced by whichever fencer moves in the restricted field of view.

Two other officials complete the set of officials for a strip, although the functions of one or both are often subsumed into the job of the referee. A timekeeper runs the clock of fencing time used between the commands “fence” and “halt.” A score keeper maintains the score sheet, recording touches awarded and any warnings or penalties. If at all possible, these two positions should be staffed, as the added burden detracts from the referee’s ability to manage the activity on the strip.

The referee thus has a responsible job. A good referee with competent judges creates the conditions that allow good fencing with the fencers being satisfied that they have had a fair chance to win. Bad officiating unfortunately creates the opposite, bad fencing and frustrated fencers. Every referee has a moral obligation to continually work to better understand the job and to give the fencers the bout they deserve.