LONDON, England ● Shin A Lam, the South Korean fencer who refused to leave the field of play after a timing problem shattered her Olympic dream, was just a split second away from either gold or silver.
Fencing’s governing body issued an official statement on Friday explaining the sequence of events, including a timekeeper’s too-quick finger that resulted in a full second being added to the clock during the sudden-death minute of the epee semi-final.
The row erupted when two double-touches were recorded with a second to go and Shin thought she had triumphed over Germany’s Britta Heidemann, having been given what is called priority.
The priority holder wins if the score remains tied when the time runs down. However, a single second was put back on the clock after some discussion and Heidemann used the extra time to launch a blistering attack and win the semi.
Shin was reduced to a sobbing mess, sitting on the piste in the spotlight for an hour while her coaches protested. Heidemann eventually took silver. Shin was left in fourth.
“During extra-time there were a total of four double hits, and the bout continued until the clock showed 00:01. At this stage there were two more double attacks, at the end of which the clock still showed 00:01,” the FIE’s statement said.
“Unfortunately during the pause in the fight, the clock was re-started in error which took the time down to 00:00,” it said.
A source familiar with the discussions between FIE officials and the London organisers, LOCOG, said the time on the clock before it went to zero was approximately 0.02 of a second. An FIE spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the time.
Such fractions of seconds are vital in a sport that moves so fast. If each fencer hits the other during a 40 millisecond window in regular time, both score a point – a double-touch.
Bouts go to a maximum of 15 touches, before the different sudden-death rules come into play where a single touch wins it all. It is believed the tip of a fencing blade is second fastest only to a marksman’s bullet.
In its statement, the FIE said it hoped future equipment – which is already able to measure milliseconds – would show the milliseconds for everyone to see.
The explanation, still short of an official apology, will not make up for Shin’s lost chance for Olympic gold. It is unclear if Shin will accept a consolation medal for sportsmanship offered by the FIE
“In order to resume the pride of the Korean people and also to try to re-instate the honour of the athlete and to re-instate the honour of the Korean Fencing Association, we would have to get an apology from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and FIE and the promise that this would not happen again,” Choi Jongjun, the secretary general of the Korean Olympic Committee told a news conference on Friday.
The timekeeper for Shin’s match was a Games volunteer in the technology department, LOCOG’s fencing sports manager Hilary Philbin said.
She said the volunteer had worked all day without any other problems.
“I don’t know how it happened from one to zero. It could have happened in the break by accident. But the stopping of the time during an action is automatic when the light goes off,” FIE technical director and sports event manager Raniero Bernardini told Reuters.
“Frankly, in my experience as a technical director, in general over roughly 30 years, it never happened before and for me it is quite difficult to imagine such a situation,” he said.