Hemathlon 2019 – Outstanding success, astounding disaster (Full Report)

A week ago at this time I was fencing for the third time in the place where I started competing in HEMA – Hemathlon in Athens, Greece.

My mood around this time was quite different than just 12 hours prior, when I wrote a very optimistic and positive preview for the event and posted it on the Digest. You could say the pendulum had swung completely in the opposite direction.

Which is why I always wait for a few days after an event to write my full report. My emotional reaction to all the problems of the event has mellowed out, my rational observations have been sorted. I am now ready to be objective… and yet the title I came up with on the way home 5 days ago still stands. You will understand why.

The Place

Athens, the capital of Greece, is officially just 660 thousand people… but that is some bureucratic bullshit right there. The actual population of the city is over 3 million people, making it one of the biggest, if not the biggest on the Balkans. Add to that a solid, constant tourist flow and you have a world caliber metropolis on your hands.

Our team was mixed – three guys from School of Historical Swordsmanship “Motus” – me, my fellow assistant-instructor Angel Chernaev, and our senior student Radostin Nanov. In addition, we had as travel mates Adina Mihaita from the Romanian Societas Milites Getae and Irena Matovic from the Serbian club Terca. A border policeman asked me “Borislav, what is this international brigade you have here?” and the phrase stuck.

Image may contain: 3 people, including Borislav Krustev, people standing and outdoor
Yours truly with Angel and Rado...
Image may contain: 3 people, including Adina Mihaita and Borislav Krustev, people smiling, people standing
…and Irena and Adina. They were the only women in the tournament, fighting and winning against guys in longsword.

Athens is a lovely city, except when you have to fence under conditions of 34 degrees C (93 F), or park your car. It is huge, alive day and night, has good food and good people. There is a reason why it is one of the most visited towns in Greece and the Balkans – the amount of actual history you can see and touch here is amazing. And not just ancient history – the Athens War Museum has a very good collection (for the region) of HEMA period weapons.

The People

Hemathlon (which still has HEMAC in front despite the organization not being really active anymore) is organized by Academy of Hoplomachia, the biggest HEMA club in Greece. Two key figures run that organization – George Zacharopoulos and Chrysovalantis Renos Tampakakis.

George is a well-known rapier and longsword instructor around the world, but while Chryso has not traveled as much, he is just as good a fencer, teacher and most importantly, organizer. While both clearly took great effort to organize the event, they also had a great team. I can’t mention every single one, but I cannot skip guys like Alexander Sikas, who takes care of everything that everyone else forgets, Andreas, Periklis, Manolis, Frank, Lambros, and others who spent so much time judging, and Dora, Vaggelitza, Spiros and Dimitris, who were fighting with Excel and score results to keep the tournament going.

A good team makes a good event – everything hangs on them, they can compensate for bad planning and they are the ones who set the atmosphere of the event. In that regard, Hemathlon and Academy of Hoplomachia have a great team.

The Schedule

This is the 4th Hemathlon, and 3rd for me as attendee, so the basic plan is pretty much the same as it has always been – lectures on Friday (this year they were in the War Museum), tournaments on Saturday (three of them – longsword, single rapier, and for the first time in the region, sword and buckler), and workshops on Sunday.

Overall, an ambitious plan. I had the bad luck of being late for the lectures on Friday, but other than that I stayed for the full duration of the event, I was in fact the last person to leave the hall on Sunday evening.

This much in 3 days took its toll on the organizers and the organization.

The planned 2 hours of sparring time on Sunday was a good thing. Sadly, this year the sports hall was half taken by some kids playing basketball for both days, so during the workshops there was practically no space for playing. I made myself busy in all three slots, so that did not affect me so much.

Naturally, both tournaments and workshops started late. And while 10-15 minutes is acceptable, I feel this year, with the tourneys starting more than an hour late (and affecting the rules for elimination bouts because of lack of time), this went a bit too far. Especially on the first day, organization should be more strict.

The Tournaments

And here it comes…

While there were many problems with all three tourneys, I have decided to focus on some key problems, and leave small details out of this report. The organizers will get them, and I will include them in a future article concerning tournament organization and practices, but I don’t see a point of being needlessly pedantic right now.

I should add that I asked last year to be a judge at Hemathlon, and when I was invited to the Minsk games, I specifically asked to judge longsword. It has the highest chance of injury, so I thought it was the one tournament it might be wise to sit out, and it is also the most common and populated HEMA discipline. For my work as a judge and referee in the pools and as a side judge in the finals, the fee for the other two tourneys in which I fenced was waived. I am grateful for the gesture, and I think this is a good practice to encourage judges to travel and help.

The explanation of the rules that should’ve taken 10 minutes and instead ran for 30+. And the judges still missed the key line – “Hit quality is at the discretion of the judges”.

The full rulesets can be found here. In short, we had a typical pool and elimination phase, with the smaller tournaments (rapier and s&b) jumping directly to semis, with weighted targets 3-1 (differently across weapons), and a few additional things – no afterblow after a hit to the head, and no afterblow in s&b and rapier after a hit to the weapon arm, no cuts scored to the torso in rapier. Close fighting is limited to grappling on the arms and strikes with the empty hand to the mask.

There were three key problems that affected all tournaments to one extent or another, and are not the typical issues like tired/untrained judges:

  1. Ridiculous rules
  2. Not following the rules
  3. Changing the rules and the main judge for one event who did not know the rules

Lets go through the key examples of all three of these.

Ridiculous rules

A key bad rule was this one:

“It is permitted to i) cut with the sword-edges from the middle of the blade to its point”

To elaborate – only hits delivered with the weak of the blade counted as valid. A hit delivered with the strong, no matter how clean, clear and devastating it would be, was not counted.

This was argued to make judging easier and to reduce the chance of a weak slicing action from close being counted as a valid hit. It made judging harder, and slices were not scored anyway, while cut quality was defined as needing a good arc to count, so there seems to be no reason for this rule to exist.

In fact, I knew about this rule months ago, and I argued with George Zacharopoulos about it. He told me at the time that you can’t cut effectively with the strong, which is simply not true and anyone who has cut with sharps knows that.

In the case of the tournament, this rule affected directly the outcome of the longsword final. It was between Maciej Kwiek from Poland and Stanislao Migliorino from Italy, excellent fighters who had an otherwise great fight. After a series of exchanges in which both of them scored some points, Maciej delivered a simple right Oberhau and transitioned it into a thrust that Stanislao deftly avoided and then counter cut directly into his head… with his strong. Here is the video, the exchange is at 0:43:

You can see the judges (me among them) deliberating for a while on this, and we did deliberate more after the video stops. Not because there was any doubt of the hit happening – I am sure even small kids in the audience understood what had happened, it was so clear, especially from other angles. The judging team just couldn’t decide what to do, because everyone with common sense knew that such a blow with a sharp would’ve left Maciej’s brains on the floor. Hell, even with a blunt, if Stanislao had hit him harder.

We even consulted with George, who was in the audience, and he shrugged and said “well, the hit was with the strong”. A ridiculous and not well-thought out rule led to a ridiculous call. Stanislao got understandably upset and after a few more exchanges Maciej won the fight.

I was very happy to see this picture. I called Stanislao’s blow here flat, as I saw the bend clearly. The photo confirms my call.

Not following the rules

The list for that is long. In the pools, numerous judges forgot the rule that there is no afterblow after a hit to the head.

The rule that hand strikes score points was forgotten as well. The rule that cuts to the back of the head don’t count (which is not exactly how it is in the rules anyway) was applied randomly.

Cut quality was, according to some referees and judges, based purely upon the cut having a good arc. So even touches to the clothing with the very tip of the blade were scored as full cuts. I personally tried to refuse two such cuts delivered by me in s&b and rapier, and I was not allowed to. Why the fighter saying that his own cut is ineffective was ignored, I can’t say.

Many fencers in rapier did not have a back of the head protector, and someone told me they are not obligatory. However, according to the equipment requirements, they are.

And finally, the most ridiculous example of the rules not being followed came in rapier.

Changing the rules during the fight and a main judge who hasn’t read the rules

And this was the final straw for me, although I should add that this was a case of renouncing responsibility to a well-known HEMA figure with the expectation of him being above the local level of judging.

In short, for the rapier semifinals and finals, British instructor Rob Runacres was presented as the main judge. He told us about his experience in organizing and judging Swordfish with not a small amount of confidence, and told us he would only change how he consults with judges – namely that instead of pulling them all together after each exchange, he will announce what he saw, and get them together only if one of them lifts a hand in disagreement.

He also did tell us he would prefer us not calling hits on ourselves, despite this being an encouraged practice in the Balkans and at Hemathlon for quite a while.

And for the first few exchanges everything seemed fine, fights were going quick… until I started realizing that Runacres had actually not read the rules at all. He was relying on side judges to know them, and only had a basic idea of them scoring-wise.

It was in my first fight of the semis, against Periklis, where shit hit the fan. I dodged a thrust, covered, and went for a hit to the head. Periklis moved forward agressively and my cut went to the back of his head.

He had no BoH protector, but I had seen it in time and the blow was a) weak, and b) did not actually hit his head, as the rim of the mask blocked the blade.

The first BoH blow is at the 3:00 mark. Yes, there is an early clean cut to the head that Periklis felt and Runacres just waved off, but meh, shit happens. Some types of shit are acceptable.

The rules explicitly forbid aiming with an intentional blow to the back of the head. But there is nothing about the strike not scoring, nor is there any punishment when you are aiming for the head, but for some reason the opponent turns his back to you. In a longsword pool fight Adina received a hit to the back of her head that was scored against her with 3 full points.

Regardless, I was reprimanded and no score was given. It happened yet again, and this time Runacres came to scold me personally, as I should’ve been able to not hit him. My hit was a light tap and it was again aimed at his head. No score was given yet again.

Having lost against Periklis, who is in general a better rapier fencer than me, my next fight was for bronze with Romanos Trechlis. We started the fight with a few light testing blows, and than went for a grapple. A very civilized one, as you can see from the video.

The exchange was halted and no points were given, despite me delivering a clear cut to the head. I was confused, to say the least.

In the next exchange, we yet again went for a grapple, with pretty much the same result. This time Runacres asked us both to the center and told us if we grapple again, we would be disqualified – both of us. At this point, I was quite pissed, but I had not once argued with him. However, I knew the rules, I took my mask off and insisted that grappling is allowed, and we are not doing anything wrong.

Not according to the great Swordfish judge (where much harder grappling happens), apparently. He told me to shut up, that our grappling was dangerous, and to go to our corners.

In the next exchange, we enter a grapple again. So as not to endanger us receiving a DQ, the moment Romanos grabbed my rapier (which is illegal according to the rules, and should’ve been 1 point for me, stupid rule), I pulled back. He did not hit me, and Runacres called halt. He then announced 3 points to Romanos for a potential thrust that did not happen and the disarm. And a win for Romanos.

The rules, however, give no points for a disarm and insist upon a strike after it to score, so I went to George, who was a side judge, to remind him of that, Prior to me doing that no one seemed to have remembered this key detail. Runacres came over, asked what the problem was, I explained, and he started talking angrily. My cornerman (Angel) came over to hear what was happening, and Runacres told him to move away. I am still impressed at myself, because at that point I was pissed. Sending my cornerman away in such a rude manner when he had every right to be there was frankly too far.

George, however, remembered and asked someone to bring the measly 4 pages of the ruleset. “Borislav is right”. No shit. With no small amount of frustration, Runacres said they had made a mistake and restarted the match. One clean hand cut later I was a winner.

Runacres explaining to me how I grappled dangerously. “He says you were aggressive”, George told me later. “I am, I am a fencer”, I answered with a smile. I am too nice.

Now, let’s summarize – we have a purported great HEMA judge who has not read the ruleset, acted rudely towards fighters and their coaches, threatens fighters for playing under the ruleset, and runs the fights in his own way, without regard to local customs or rules…. because he hadn’t bothered to read them. Needless to say, I was quite disgusted with him and with George for allowing him to judge. This was an example of all three problems of the tournament, all packed into one… unclear and ridiculous rules, not following them, and a judge not even knowing them.

Romanos, mate, if you read this, please know I am not blaming you of any of this. We had a fun fight and we were both victims of that shit.

The fights and my judging

While from a judging standpoint the tournament was a pain in the ass, as far as fighting goes, I was very happy. Everyone I fought with was careful and controlled, there was no excessive force, fights were fun and interesting (albeit short, both by design and due to the tournament running long and them deciding to shorten elim fights). There were no serious injuries, which is a good indicator for controlled fighters.

I enjoyed a lot of matches, with s&b against Jacopo Penso, with rapier against Maciej Kwiek, and I did watch awesome longsword fights and felt like I was missing it a bit… but it was the right call.

Here is my full s&b pool:

My experience judging was also a pleasure, albeit a tiring one. Me and Periklis got some preprinted scoring sheets, but no judging instruction whatsoever, we were just told to bring a sheet when three fights were filled.

Periklis acted as referee first, I was the judge and scoretaker. I will say I am quite happy with our judging, we messed up a couple of times, but we communicated with signs in about 80% of cases without bothering to close and discuss. And we were not afraid to go and ask the fighters for details. Due to the earlier instructions, people were discouraged to talk to the judges without being talked to, which in my opinion also led to people not calling their own hits. So when the awesome Thanasis Diamantis called a hit on himself from Irena, I very loudly pronounced that he was the first in the pool to do so and he would get a beer from me for that.

I will say that we had very clean fighters as well, which helped us a lot. Due to how the system for punishing doubles was made (it drains the number of exchanges you get), we decided (without discussing it explicitly) to call “no exchange” when there was a messy phrase, even if it looked like a double might have happened. That gave everyone a bonus exchange and a lesser chance of a judging mistake deciding the fights.

Despite that, our pool was the first to finish, going through 15 fights in a little over an hour. I talked to everyone afterwards, and it seems there was no one unhappy about a particular call. I know we made some mistakes, but it seems none of them were a big issue for fighters either.

Periklis was a referee first, as I said, then we changed. Here is the full video of our pool:

Feel free to criticize me as brutally as you can.

In conclusion

Awesome fighters, an idiotic ruleset, and judges moving from competent to completely insane. Not the best formula for a good tourney. My personal aim was to get some judging experience and to warm up a bit before Minsk – I was not aiming to win anything at all, and fight-wise I had fun.

But the experience of being threatened by a rude, arrogant HEMA VIP, combined with the experience of being a judge on the team who won’t score an obvious deadly blow left a bit of a bad taste. The tournament rewarded things that I (and many other fencers there) have been taught are wrong, and punished things we have been taught are correct. If that was the first Hemathlon, I would not be so critical. But it was the fourth… and it was worse than last year. I really hope it will be better in 2020.

PS: The irony – my award for 3rd place in rapier is this book by Ron Runacres:

It’s actually a great book. Yes, someone can be an asshole and a crap judge and still be a good HEMA scholar.

The workshops

Ah, finally getting the negativity out of the way and getting to the good part – the workshops.

Hemathlon is the one Balkan event where you get a good collection of great instructors every year, and it was not different this time. I had the pleasure of attending those of Tristan Zukowski, Ton Puey and Arto Fama. And I heard great things about Fabrice Cognot’s poleaxe seminar, in which Irena and Rado did violence together.

Tristan’s workshop would be more useful for beginners, as it focused on basic cutting and transitions from one cut to another with good flow, but as it was first in the day, it was also a good way to warm-up.

Ton Puey’s workshop was a dream, as always. What I love about it is not just his skill in fencing and teaching, but also the fact that he never teaches the same thing twice and always tries to build on top. This time the topic was the Bella Espanola, the Spanish beauty, or, simply said, the approach of late Verdadera Destreza against low-positioned French and Italian fencers. What is the approach? Get into their guard! Rada, it seems, sees leaving the classic Angulo rector, straight legs guard of Destreza (for just a bit) and outfencing the Italians and French in a guard more similar to theirs.

The magic happened with how Ton presented this, giving us the roles of diestro and Italian in each drill, with us switching roles midway, and slowly increasing the complexity of the drill and the presented theory. It was easy to grasp, with a slow start, quick build-up, and a pleasure to be part of.

Some free sparring time… that was sadly marred a bit by the hot weather. It was 34 C and all of us were tired. I had a chance to fence Arto Fama, but I got exhausted after 3-4 nice exchanges and I went a bit faster after that to compensate my lack of strength – not the best approach, but I think I was near heatstroke. Arto was great about it, and I stopped soon enough. I watched him with other people as well, including those much less experienced than me, and he was always very careful, going as fast as the opponent wanted, and giving them great feedback afterwards. I’ve seen a lot of good fighters, but not all good fighters are really good sparring partners. Arto is both.

And after that came his workshop… which was a thought-provoking experience. He focused on very basic biomechanics – of the simple Oberhau and the wind – but went into them in excruciating detail, something I enjoyed immensely. We found out we had some differences on how we would define our “default” VT, but I readily experimented with his and I can say that our mechanical differences might come more from how we got there and personal differences than conceptual ones. It impressed me how respective he was towards people questioning him in his own class and how he came afterwards to clear things up yet again (because I cut one discussion short, not wanting to interrupt his class for too long). He did not know I am an assistant-instructor with a decade of experience, I am pretty sure he would’ve been just as respectful towards anyone, and that is a show of manner, humility and respect that impressed me immensely.

The Party

Food…. Honestly, everything was great in that regard, with two great dinners on Friday and Saturday, and people ready to get you to a bar after the tourney, but judging one and fighting in two is enormously tiring and I threw in the towel early.

I was really touched that our hosts also invited us to dinner on Sunday, as only me and my International brigade ladies were still in Athens. The event was over, yet they still fed us good food in a cozy restaurant.

Will I go to Hemathlon again?

At one point on Saturday I was so pissed I said I might not bother coming back next year. That was weird for me, as Hemathlon was my first international event, first tourney, and a home to so many friends. Yet the experience of asshole two years in a row was a bit too much.

However, one week later I can safely say – I will go to Hemathlon 2020. Will I compete? If the ruleset is sensible, and there is a commitment by the organizers for the rules to be followed, I will not just come again, I will come again to both judge and fight, and I will bring judges and fighters with me.

It was a mixed bag, to an extent, but I love those guys, I can see their enthusiasm and their efforts, and I was honoured to be a part of their team even for a bit this year. Maybe that is why I was angry a week ago – I took it personally.

As I often do.

PS: After my trip to Minsk I opened Messenger and send the following message to Rob Runacres:

Mr. Runacres, I met some of your students in Minsk and that made me reevaluate my impression of you at Hemathlon. I simply couldn’t compute such awesome people, with a clear spirit of sportsmanship, great attitude and a sense of honor with the way you acted in Greece. So I rethought that weekend and realized you were to some extent thrown into the deep end by the organizers without much warning, in a place with different culture of fighting and different standards, and as such I think my evaluation of you have been a bit too harsh. I apologise for that, and I want to congratulate you on training such good fencers, and more importantly, good people.

I have not changed how I look at what happened at Hemathlon, but no person is one-dimensional. Given that this article has become slightly more popular lately, I feel I should not this.

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