A recent incident has perhaps highlighted the need for increased awareness among some parents of the relevant rules and conventions associated with referees and spectators of our sport. The following discussion aims to clearly lay out these matters in order to prevent any further misunderstandings.
The first point to discuss is the role of the referee, which is described in the FIE rules:
t.34. 1. By accepting a position as referee or judge, the person so designated pledges his honour to respect the Rules and to cause them to be respected, and to carry out his duties with the strictest impartiality and absolute concentration.
Refereeing in Australia is essentially a voluntary task; sometimes expenses are covered, sometimes not, but nobody is going to make a living at it. Refereeing is also difficult. In terms of judging the actions, it requires not only impartiality and absolute concentration, but also a good understanding of the rules and their application. It also requires observation of multiple things at the same time, an ordering of those events into correct sequence, and the ability to communicate that sequence back to the fencers.
With all the benefit of modern technology it’s still practically impossible to get all this right all of the time. Even when that happens, it is highly likely that some fencers and observers will still be convinced mistakes have been made. Throw in the need to observe and communicate with sometimes inattentive or unsure hand judges, and you can see that volunteering to referee an Under 13 non-electric foil competition is a fairly heroic undertaking. However, that’s not all the referee has to do:
t.96. 1. The Referee is responsible not only for the direction of the bout, the judging of hits and the checking of equipment, but equally for the maintenance of order in the bouts which he is refereeing.
According to the long-standing conventions of the sport, the referee is absolute ruler on the piste, in the same way that an airline pilot or ship’s captain has authority over everyone on board. Below the referee come judges, team captains, fencers, coaches, and finally spectators. The only authority over the referee at an event is the Directoire Technique (DT; the person or group of people running the event which may include a supervising referee). Even then, that authority exists only under certain specific and limited circumstances, such as an official appeal by a fencer who believes a rule has been applied incorrectly. However, judgements by the referee over the facts of what occurred on the piste are final:
t.95. 2. No decision on a question of fact can be the subject of an appeal.
The rules also discuss the roles of the various other lower-level participants, such as judges, team managers, team captains and fencers. Coaches? They only get one mention in the rules, and that just informs them that they are expected to stay in their boxes during matches. What about spectators?
t.82. 1. [all persons who take part in or attend a fencing competition, including the spectators] must observe strictly and faithfully the Rules and the Statutes of the FIE, the particular rules for the competition in which they are engaged, the traditional customs of courtesy and integrity and the instructions of the officials.
t.93. Spectators are obliged not to interfere with the good order of a competition, to do nothing which may tend to influence the fencers or the Referee, and to respect the decisions of the latter even when they do not agree with them. They must obey any instructions which the Referee may deem it necessary to give them.
So it’s clear that the referee is in charge; what they say goes, and this applies even more so to spectators than it does to fencers. Fencers have a strictly limited right of appeal. Other participants, including spectators, have none.
If you’re a spectator (although this is by tradition and not specified in the rules so a referee can rule otherwise), you may cheer on your team or fencer between points, or even during points if something particularly exciting is happening. What you definitely can’t do is to offer the fencers advice during a bout or criticise the referee:
t.82. 3. Everybody taking part in or present at a fencing competition must remain orderly and must not disturb the smooth running of the competition. During bouts no one is allowed to go near the pistes, to give advice to the fencers, to criticise the Referee or the judges, to insult them or to attempt to influence them in any way.
This is both black and white in the rules and part of the traditional customs of courtesy in fencing. As a spectator, you must not engage a referee in a debate on any subject, any more than you would presume to argue with a pilot about the way in which the plane is being flown. The referee has not only the right to stamp on any such disturbances of good order, but the explicit responsibility to do so:
The Referee must stop immediately any activity which disturbs the smooth running of the bout which he is refereeing.
The rules also specify exactly what the referee should do about such disturbances:
t.118. 3. Any person not on the piste who disturbs the good order of the competition receives:
a) On the first infringement, a warning, indicated by a YELLOW CARD, valid for the whole of the competition, which must be noted on the bout score-sheet and recorded by the Directoire Technique;
b) At the second infringement during the same competition a BLACK CARD.
So if you have shouted “Go forward” or “Parry-riposte” to your fencer during a bout and received a polite request to desist rather than a yellow card, consider yourself fortunate. If you have also criticised the referee’s decisions at the same event and not received a black card (immediate expulsion from the event and possible further sanctions), consider yourself doubly fortunate.
It doesn’t matter if the referee is a small teenage girl and you’re the Prime Minister of Australia; on the piste that girl is absolute monarch and you’re a serf. Ultimately, as a spectator, including a coaching or parental spectator, the rules and conventions demand that you respect what the referee says and keep quiet about it. If you’re uncomfortable with that relationship, then perhaps being a fencing spectator is not for you.
Understanding the above is particularly important at events attended by young fencers who may observe disorderly or disrespectful actions by parents and consider them normal or permissible. In our sport, they are not.