The 2019 men’s sabre team final in Budapest was dramatic. It was close, it was tense, it was heated, and it was watched by an awful lot of people.
Right in the middle of all this, referee Luigi Martilotti made a call.
On the march, Kim crossed his feet.
Then he launched an attack sequence, which Szilagyi attempted to parry. Kim hit straight through. Two lights.
Initial call: Attack Touch to Kim
Szilagyi called for video, pointing out that Kim had crossed.
The referee agreed.
Halt should have been called when the cross occurred. The subsequent fencing actions, including Kim’s successful attack, were annulled, and a yellow card given.
Revised call: Halt at the cross. Subsequent actions invalid. No touch. Yellow card to Kim.
The Hungarian team protested that a touch should have been awarded to Szilagyi for his riposte after the malparry. This protest was not upheld.
This decision didn’t impress the Hungarians, or certain sections of the internet, but let’s make one thing perfectly clear:
Luigi Martilotti’s decision was based on his interpretation of the action under the rules of the game. It was not made in ignorance of the rules, or in defiance of them.
Mr Martilotti made a judgment where he applied his understanding of the rules to actions made by the players, as is his responsibility as the referee.
This whole episode is a profound reminder of something important at the heart of sabre.
“The referee is not the star”
Martilotti’s decision has been broadly, if quietly, supported by the active referee community. It’s also completely in keeping with what we’d expect to see called at a World Cup or Grand Prix event, and reflects what we will be so bold as to suggest is an underlying philosophy of refereeing within the professional corps.
We will bluntly summarise this as: You shouldn’t get a touch if you didn’t earn it.
There is a widely demonstrated distaste among the sabre referee corps at A-grade level towards what we’d describe as petty procedural points. At lower grades, it’s common for inexperienced referees to fall back on cards and penalties and technicalities to establish their power, but a top FIE referee will be more inclined to let the game play out.
The referee should never be the centre of attention. The referee should never be seen to be the person determining the outcome of the match. That’s up to the players.
If you want to award a point that wasn’t earned, you need an iron-clad and unassailable reason for why such drastic action must be taken. Giving out points on technicalities, where everyone present fully understands that they weren’t properly earned, is exactly the kind of self-aggrandising intervention that a good referee must avoid.
The referee’s job is to allow the players to do their thing, to play their game, to work their magic. Mangling your defence and hitting after the finish against a guy who may have crossed his feet some time ago, well, that ain’t magic by anyone’s standards. By all means, throw the attack out as the trash it was. But let’s not pretend the defender covered themselves in glory here either. If the referee can make a reasonable interpretation of the rules to explain why nobody walks away from this debacle with anything more than a yellow card, then that’s the correct call.
That’s the opinion of some Australians, based on watching a bunch of world cups and reading the rule book. What do our glorious overlords in the FIE think?
Here’s a spoiler: We don’t really know, and we never will.
Setting a precedent
Sabre refereeing operates on a common-law system. We’ve written about this extensively before: The rules themselves need to be adapted to the complexities of reality by the interpretation of the referees, and the corps as a whole learns by watching each others’ decisions.
When it comes to common actions, these precedents are widely understood and you’re very unlikely to get into trouble for following them. In the era of video streaming, every significant decision is out there, published on the record. This has led to a vast improvement in the consistency and professionalism of refereeing. The precedents can be looked up.
But every so often, you’ll run into a weird case where precedent isn’t firmly established, and you actually need to make a judgment on how to apply the rules in the book to what just happened on the piste.
This is what Luigi Martilotti did in Budapest. He made a judgment, out in the open, for the whole sport to see.
His decision made some people mad. Exactly who drove this whole process remains mysterious, and will probably remain this way. What is clear is that someone was apparently mad enough for FIE disciplinary action to be started.
It was Made Known through infuriatingly vague back-channels that It Had Been Decreed by Important People that Martilotti’s decision was Wrong. Catastrophically wrong. Career-limiting, perhaps career-ending wrong.
The Secret Court had made a decision, and word started to ripple out quietly, as it always has, that something bad had gone down – not enough for anyone to know exactly what, but enough to make everyone nervous.
But there was nothing concrete. Nothing public. Nothing official.
Nothing to explain this decision, or justify it. Nothing even to acknowledge that it was ever taken.
Nothing to learn from. Nothing to set a new precedent.
The only thing that will be remembered is that Luigi Martilotti made a call which was consistent with the the rules of sabre and the role of the referee. His call will stand, and will be cited in future.
We’re okay with that.
We’re hoping to write up more on what the hell actually happened in Budapest on an organisational and political level, but it’s… delicate. If you know something and would like to share with us, on or off the record, please feel free to drop an email to email@example.com or hit us up on Facebook.
In the mean time, here’s the match. Skip to 31:54 if you’re just here for the drama, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. Just watch the thing.