This week taught us that fencing is the only combat sport in the Olympics without weight classes, which made me wonder if it oughtn’t at least have height classes. See, I have the kind of mind that likes to exploit rules. It’s just a shame I wasn’t in charge of a sports franchise. This sort of scheme was actually employed in Major League Baseball in 1951, in one of my favourite sports stories ever. The St. Louis Browns had a big promotion between the two games of a double header. During this intermission they wheeled out a large papier mache cake, and a little person named Eddie Gaedel jumped out of it, to much applause. But team owner Bill Veeck had another surprise. He had slyly signed Gaedel to a major league contract a few days earlier, and had included him on the active roster for that game, even though no one had noticed, except one reporter whose questions were ignored by the team. Sure enough late in the game the Browns announced a pinch runner, wearing jersey number 1/8. It was awesome:
The opposition and umpire protested, but the Browns had his contract right there and everything was in order, so they had no choice but to let the game proceed. Veeck told Gaedel that if he swung at a ball he would be shot, and the little man left the bat on his shoulder, taking four balls and walking to first base to great cheers. They estimated that he had something like a two inch strike zone. That was his first and last at bat; he retired with a 1.000 on base percentage and the league immediately made it such that the commissioner had to approve all contracts before a player was allowed to take the field.
Gaedel was mysteriously beaten to death outside of a bowling alley some years later, and his grandnephew Kyle Gaedele was drafted by MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays. Kyle is 6’4.
Now back to fencing and the Olympics
Fencing provided us with one of the more spectacular (and weird) moments of the 2012 London Olympics. Shin-A Lam (South Korea) faced off against Britta Heidemann (Germany) with a trip to the gold medal final on the line. The two women were tied doing battle in sudden-stab overtime. Fencing plays out in timed rounds, and the referee will routinely stop and restart the bout (and the clock) for various reasons. In this particular match the round was tied with 1 second remaining on the clock, where a tie would result in another round of the hard fought battle. The referee said go, Lam assumed a defensive posture, and Heidemann lunged forward aggressively, seeming to steal victory with a literally last second hit.
The crowd erupted. But so too did the South Korean coach. Why? Because the clock never started… Lam’s coach immediately freaked out, and the scene got weird fast. Lam took off her helmet and started crying profusely. The judges convened, and you can hear the polite British announcer in the building pleading with the crowd not to get rowdy. After a time the judges returned and announced the victor.
But Lam decided that she didn’t agree, and wanted to file a formal protest. Now the fun part: in fencing, if you leave the field of play (technically the “piste”) you are deemed to have accepted the decision of the judges. So Lam did the only thing she could do and refused to leave. There followed scores of great images and drama as she silently protested her defeat and seemed to have a total breakdown, while the announcer begged the crowd not to boo.
After 45 minutes the judges came back and announced that… Heidemann was still the winner. So Lam stayed there. For 75 minutes. She had no more recourse left, and eventually security showed up and gently gave her the boot.
It made for great drama and all, but ultimately I think it was poor sportsmanship. Sport is ultimately about losing. By a millisecond, by a hair, because of poor judging, because your opponent stretched the rules, because an official screwed up, and so on and so on. Maybe the clock was a little off, but I’d say Lam still got beaten, and to me she played it passively, expecting the clock to save her, but crazy things have a way of happening at the ends of games. That’s part of what makes being sports fan so much fun.
Both fighters would lose their next matches. Heidemann got a silver medal, and Lam got a silver medal in the team event.
Hilarious Poor Sportsmanship
The theme I take from the above story is: protect yourself at all times. If you’ve ever watched a boxing match that is the number one rule, and the one thing the ref always instructs both fighters to do before the start of a match. Protect yourself. No matter what. This made me remember a really wild finish to a match from 2011, when everyone’s new most hated athlete Floyd Mayweather fought Victor Ortiz. Here’s what happened…
Ortiz claims that Mayweather was illegally elbowing him subtly throughout the match (Ortiz wrote a self serving piece about the fight which is at least somewhat interesting). Perhaps in retaliation Ortiz then headbutted Mayweather in the fourth round. This he admits, and it is totally illegal. The ref at this point stopped the fight, but failed to retain control of the ring. He should have sent the fighters to their corners and started things properly, but he didn’t. He told them to knock it off, and they faced each other. Game on.
Ortiz then puts out his gloves and offers Mayweather a sort of hug as an apology. Mayweather meekly touches gloves and Ortiz continues to offer his gesture of apology. But technically the fight is still on. Protect yourself at all times. So what does Mayweather do? He absolutely lays Ortiz out with a swift left right combination that puts him to sleep, which reminds you of how utterly dangerous a professional fighter is given one little opening. Ortiz goes down, and that’s it. Watching you immediately think “what? no! that can’t be it”. But it is. It’s the dirtiest, greasiest, but still within the rules ending of a match I’ve ever seen in any sport. Ortiz was gracious in defeat, but Mayweather was, unsurprisingly, not gracious in victory. At the end of the match he was interviewed by an 80 year old Larry Merchant. Floyd didn’t like his questions, and ultimately cursed Merchant out. Merchant coolly says to Mayweather “if I was fifty years younger I’d kick your ass” and you almost believe it. You can watch the whole crazy round, it’s very entertaining.