Serious Business: A cautionary tale on the role of the referee

I’d like to address an issue in referee training which been recently highlighted in my club, but which I am sure has broader applications.

Much ink has been spilled and much angst expended on technical elements of referee training. This is a fine and noble thing. Incompetent, biased or inconsistent refereeing can break the game. However, undue emphasis on the difficulty and subjectivity of refereeing raises a second set of problems which can be equally dangerous.

Let’s turn for illustration to a aggression-laden bout from the 2015 Seoul Grand Prix:

The real fun starts about 11 minutes in. Its roots originate in the high-pressure nature of the Olympic qualification season, where the lack of a men’s sabre team event at Rio means that for the big nations, everything hinges on a handful of individual events for critical ranking points.

The more immediate problem, though, lies with the referee. And it’s not technical. The calls are fine. There’s nothing particularly controversial about any of them. The truth is that sabre refereeing is really not all that complicated: if you ignore all the shouting and drama and debates, it’s an exercise in pattern recognition. It’s a sport with rules and conventions, and the job of the ref is to effectively and consistently apply them. This referee does a perfectly adequate job of that.

What he is unable to do is to control the bout.

It’s often said that there are three people in a fight, and you can’t beat the ref. What this case graphically demonstrates is that in reality, you can. You can undermine and stress and rattle the referee until their confidence wavers, then exploit that weakness to lobby harder than ever. As their ability to make calls falters, a feedback loop is generated.

It is not the role of the referee to be engaging in debate with the fencers in the middle of a match, but that’s what’s going on here from about the fifth minute, and it’s a disaster. The fencers realise they can act out with impunity, and the situation degenerates as they (and their coaches) expand their challenges to the ref’s authority.

It’s natural to want to avoid rocking the boat too much, but when you have a situation where a coach walks onto the piste and demands that the match be stopped because he has no confidence in the decisions,  even when the coach is as senior as Szabo, a line needs to be drawn.

I am not intending to cast scorn on this particular referee, who was dealing with a hideous situation as best he could. While fully qualified, he’s not one of the big-name refs, and he was up against two World Champions, each on the raggedy edge of qualification for the Olympic Games, each with a powerful coach and a large and rowdy camp of supporters behind him. This match serves as a cautionary tale on the too-often unacknowledged importance of discipline and resolve by referees, and the difficulties they can face in maintaining control.

Everyone loves to bitch and moan about referees who are capricious tyrants, but the opposite extreme is just as destructive. We need to kill the cliche that refereeing is a fundamentally subjective exercise, open to personal interpretation. Consistency and professionalism are being built at FIE level, and need to be encouraged and protected from the base.

Limbach v Montano referee
That, and referees should be given tasers.