Commentary

A crying shame for S. Korean fencer

Updated: July 30, 2012, 7:54 PM ET
By Jim Caple

Shin A LamHannah Johnston/Getty ImagesShin Lam of South Korea reacts after losing the semifinal match in a controversial ending.

In a show of solidarity for the South Korean fencer, I am refusing to leave my pub until they reverse their decision and allow me to have another pint. Or perhaps two. After all, we must all stick together.

What a thing. South Korea's Shin Lam had just advanced to the gold medal match in the women's fencing epee semifinal when the officials said, "Hold on a second!" Literally.

They reset the clock from zero back to one second, giving Germany's Britta Heidemann another chance to land a winning strike against Shin. Heidemann did so, sending her on to the gold medal match and setting off Shin's sit-down strike on the competition piste.

Shin wasn't being a bad sport: Fencing rules dictate that if you protest an official's decision, you cannot leave the piste until there is a final ruling. That's not necessarily bad. The Allyson Felix/Jeneba Tarmoh tie saga might have ended a tad earlier had the two been forced to stay on the track in the rain.

But it was embarrassing and agonizing for Shin. She had hoped to stand on top of the medal podium. Instead, she sat at the edge of the platform for nearly an hour, occasionally choking back tears, occasionally letting them roll down her cheeks. She was the loneliest athlete in the Olympics.

Eventually the officials finally found time in their hectic schedule to issue a ruling. They rejected the protest and Shin left in tears while the crowd rightfully booed. Shin subsequently lost the bronze medal match as well.

"It was a very difficult hour," Shin told reporters. "While I was up there I was thinking all the time that I've spent training for the Olympics. … I still don't understand why my match was not declared finished after her last-third hits."

Who can blame her? You train for the Olympics, you compete as best you can, you earn a shot at the gold medal -- only to have it all end because an official can't read a clock properly. As her coach complained to reporters," Every referee said that he understood our position yet they have not done anything. … It was one second left and she made three moves. The clock was set back to one second when it was already on zero."

Thanks to the added second, Heidemann went on to win the gold medal, so naturally she didn't see anything wrong with what the officials did, telling reporters the whole protest was unnecessary: "When there is one second left on the clock, it could be one second or one second and 99 hundredths of a second."

She said that perhaps they should use clocks that break the remaining time down into half-seconds.

Yes, that might be a good idea. When basketball time clocks show tenths of a second in the final minute and when other Olympic sports determine results to the hundredth, and even thousandth of a second, it might be best to rely on a system a little more accurate than counting "One Mississippi, two Mississippi."

This wasn't quite the 1972 U.S./Soviet basketball game in Munich -- Heidemann received only one second chance, not two -- but it still was ugly. Of course, it wasn't unexpected. Judging controversies are as much a part of the Olympics as corruption and extraordinarily high beer prices.

Why, there was controversy in the men's gymnastics team as well Monday. The British team initially finished second behind China but after a Japanese protest resulted in a scoring change on the pommel horse, England was dropped to the bronze. Given that it didn't cost them gold and that Great Britain still earned its first team medal in the sport since 1912 (they were the Cubs of gymnastics), the gymnasts weren't too bent out of shape by the ruling.

But we do not tune into the Olympics to watch officials huddle at a table while athletes scratch their heads or sit and weep. And athletes should not train for years only to have their fate determined by officials better fit for the Monty Python Olympics.

The best athletes in the world compete in the Olympics. They deserve the best judges and clocks as well.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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