As most of you know, just over a week ago I had the opportunity to fence and judge at a special event – HEMA in the European Games 2019 in Minsk, Belarus.
As I prefer to do, I waited for some time for all of the passion and emotion to wind down – including mine. If had I written this when I had just returned, it would’ve been a very different article.
Before I start, I will mention a few important things you should know. First of all, the tournament I was at was just a part of the HEMA event that was included as part of the cultural programme of the European Games. I was invited to that tournament by the delegates of the Central and Eastern Europe region. I was not an accredited journalist for the European Games (I could’ve been, but it would’ve confused border authorities). I served as a judge in longsword, and competed in sword and buckler, but I had no other capacity as an organizer or helper at the event.
As it often happens, I will start with the least controversial thing. Only… in this case it really isn’t.
For those of you who don’t know, Belarus is what the West calls a ‘soft dictatorship’. It is officially a presidential republic, but president Alexander Lukashenko has been in office since 1994, after he first removed term limits, then made presidential terms longer. Elections have been defined as “unfree” by international observers for the last two decades, with the classic 80% for Lukashenko and 3-4% for the opposition candidate every time voters got a chance to say something. The media is largely state-controlled, and all big newspapers even share a building (which was close to our tournament hall). There has been repression against independent journalists, beatings and arrests against the opposition and its activists, and recently, labour laws that practically bring back serfdom (as admitted by Lukashenko himself – he also admits his authoritarian tendencies).
All this meant some people were not very happy that HEMA is taking part in such an event. Why are the European games in Minsk anyway? Because that is their idea – to be an additional event for smaller countries who cannot host full-blown Olympic games. The first European games were in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the next one will be in Krakow, Poland.
Why a “soft” dictatorship? Well, because modern dictatorships are smarter, and while Belarusians certainly have economic problems and the nation is definitely not comparable to Western Europe, they do live okay by the standards of Eastern Europe – especially in Minsk, the capital.
Minsk is big, clean and comparatively nice city. Compared to what? Well, most of Eastern Europe. It was my first time there and I expected much worse. While some of what we saw was certainly due to preparation for the games, not everything could be.
Belarusians enjoy gigantic malls, all the latest tech is available, they have access to Western products, they have cheap transport, alcohol, food, living conditions… if you don’t know you are in a dictatorship, there are few signs that give it away.
Our dorms were old, but in good condition and obviously have seen some renovation. These were actually teaching and living quarters for young Olympic hopefuls. Breakfast was definitely not a high point – simple and a limited choice of food, presweetened coffee and tea – but it was edible. There was a basketball court in a separate building nearby where we could warm up on Friday, which was nice.
Overall, Belarus surprised us all in many ways. While we didn’t have much of a chance to check out the nightlife (and that wasn’t the goal), the food in the city is good, taxis are incredibly cheap, and the Belarusians themselves are friendly and welcoming.
The main organizers of the event were Italians – specifically Roberto Gotti and Francesco Loda. Gotti was the driving force behind the whole event – it was his connections with figures in the Belarusian government that made it possible, his own personal collection that was exhibited in the city center, and his own initiative that made it all happen.
Officially, the organizing committeee also included Alberto Bomprezzi, Kristine Konsmo, Axel Petterson, Ton Puey and George Zacharopoulos – all well-known names in HEMA. Some of them weren’t at the event at all, others took an advisory role in the organisation of the tournament, but I am sure all were a key part of planning the event.
The Belarusians themselves – the local Minsk club – provided some grunts, some audience, and as a bonus – some excellent fencers.
The fighters and judges – that is another matter. There were over 130 fighters from all over the world. I could give you this link to see the full list, but sadly, many didn’t show up. Part of the Austrian delegation, the whole Greek delegation, and a handful of people from pretty much every other one didn’t make it due to different reasons. Travelling to Belarus is not easy or cheap from many parts of the world (there were plenty of examples of lost baggage), and travelling through Russia could be a big problem – apparently, even going through Moscow to Belarus requires a Russian visa, despite us not needing a Belarusian one because of the games.
In the days after the event some said it was a HEMA tournament with the highest HEMA Rating to date. I don’t know yet if this is true, but there were more than a dozen top 10 fighters and probably more than 40 top 100 fencers. Of course, there were some with no ranking at all – me and Maurine Baumel were such examples, as before this we didn’t have a Rating in our discipline. I think our performance was good enough to show that HEMA Ratings are not the only means to indicate a good fencer.
While not everyone was the best, and some key top fighters were missing, there were really capable representatives from every region and every country. There was a unique feel to it that only big events like Dijon, or (as I’ve heard) WMAW and Dreynevent have. But unlike them, things were more balanced in Minsk, and the majority of people were not the old guard, gathering yet again for seminars and workshops, but competitive fighters with experience and drive.
Friday was kicked off with a conference, in which well-known HEMA scholars like Daniel Jaquet, Bert Gevaert, Mike Prendergast and others took part… and did an awesome job, from what I hear. Sadly my flight problems (due to the aforementioned need for a Russian visa) meant I missed it.
The tournament schedule was quite tight:
Of course, not everything ran perfectly on time, but as far as HEMA tournaments go, the delays were bearable. And despite a “dinner” written for the end of the first day, there was no organized socialization time at all.
On the second day I had a chance to take a trip to the city with Jay Maxwell (as neither of us were fighting or judging in rapier & dagger) and we checked out the exhibit, which was located in a small, local museum.
For a small fee we had a chance to walk through 2 small rooms and one bigger hall, all filled with wonderful stuff. The first room was a reconstruction of a historical smithy, and it was relatively well done:
The bigger hall was where the beauties were… beauties like these:
And also, some two-handed swords, some cane-swords, and most of all – a ton of actual historical treatises. I counted 5 copies of Meyer, at least 3 of Marozzo, Cappo Ferro, Jacob Sutor, Alfieri, Hope, Roworth, and some rare and weird stuff as well. And a giant Thibault in the middle of it.
There was also a video wall with short clips. Everyone had a chance to send some, but with the requirement that they cover something in the particular sources that are at the exhibition. Most of the clips were from Italians schools; overall, there were not many.
There was a separate room with weapons fixed with chains, so visitors could try to handle them. The swords were from popular HEMA suppliers like Regenyei, Fabri Armorum, and others, the only highlight being a very nice Arms & Armor poleaxe. I didn’t bother even taking photos there.
And that was it – the only problem I could see with this exhibit was the limited time frame – everything was 16th C or later, aside from perhaps one longsword. The same goes for the sources… but that is the limitation when using a personal collection. I sincerely doubt Belarusian museums had anything they could add to it, and overall, the exhibit looked great for its size.
And here comes the biggest part of the weekend for all of us.
Multiple times the organizers emphasized that the tournament was just one part of the Minsk event – and I agreed with it. From what I heard and saw, the other two parts (conferences and exhibit) were very well done. But I went there for the tourney, and so did the 130 other fighters, instructors and judges, and that was the key point of the event for us.
So let’s start light.
The tournament hall was good – big, but not too much, although at some point we needed to leave the hall so that our oxygen could be replenished. It was a bit painful that we had to leave all our gear in a hall on the first floor, and climb 4 floors every time we needed to get to the tournament hall… but than again, we are supposed to be the best HEMA athletes, right?
Here are my first steps into the hall, the morning of Saturday:
Four rings, judging tables, plenty of cameras, enough room upstairs for the audience – that was all good. The lack of mineral water bottles and air conditioning – that was bad. There was a table with snacks, but when they disappeared halfway through the day, they weren’t restocked. The water was in a typical water dispensing machine, so we had lines in front of the slow faucet, and we wasted a ton of plastic cups.
The energy on the first day was good. Here is a short clip during the longsword gear check that hopefully gives you an idea – people were upbeat, enthusiastic, and happy to be there:
There was a short meeting between staff, we were each assigned to a referee, and there seemed to be plenty of judges, most of them experienced (or at least experienced fighters, which is also good).
There was a fairly long consultation about the rules, with fighters asking questions and the organizers being as detailed as possible in explaining them.
However, the first red lights appeared – there was no definition whatsoever of hit quality, and it was unclear who the tournament manager was.
Earlier (around March) we were told there would be one tournament manager, but I am guessing after he was not available, they decided that the tournament would be run by the committee. Kristine Konsmo took the biggest load of the organization on the first day, but as events unfolded, it was clear she was not the one truly calling the shots.
And what a ruleset it was. Some things were very typical – afterblows diminishing or neutralizing a blow, limited grappling (we were told throwing will be an option only if there were mats), weighted scoring… Some new, but good rules (in my opinion) – no afterblow after a hit to the head (or the hand in one-handed weapons), no torso cuts in rapier (allowed, but not scored), an attempt to define open and closed doubles (meaning a double where you just abandoned defence, versus one where you both tried to cover yourself but failed).
However, there was some weird stuff, like the rapier ruleset, where a longer rapier scored less valuable cuts than a shorter one. That rule was at times confusing, at times gamefied (some people changed what rapier they used during the fight), and largely illogical. Why? Because a shorter training rapier is the same width as the long one, typically. Historically, a shorter rapier usually had more meat in the blade, which would mean better cutting capabilities, but our modern rapiers do not reflect that.
Another serious problem with the ruleset was when the bout ended and how time was run. In principle, the clock should not have stopped unless the referee called for it. So 3 minutes of fighting means 3 minutes with all stops and calls. If a longer discussion about a call is required, referees stopped the clock, but that decision took a couple of extra seconds on top of the time for the discussion. In addition, referees felt pressured to make very quick calls, sometimes calling crappy hits just for the sake of “the show must go on”.
And finally, that rule led to the old problem of “5 seconds on the clock, I need to score”. Near the end of the fight, the fighter who was losing exploded forward and quite often slammed against his opponent. Why? Because the table was the one announcing the end of the fight, not the referee. The fact that we solved this years ago with the “last exchange” announcement seemed to have escaped the rulemakers. And suicidal charges like that are what often lead to serious injuries.
Another rule that was mocked relentlessly online (even during the tourney) was the coin-toss – if fighters were equal in score, they had a sudden death exchange… however, one fighter gains priority with a coin toss, and if the sudden death exchange is not clean, he wins the fight. Was that rule such a problem? Not really, and I do know why organizers implemented it – when you have good fighters, they can perform many unclean exchanges before one gets on top, and sudden death is supposed to save time.
There was no clarity about the sword and buckler tournament – it was first announced as such, and it is still written so on the website of the event, but the actual rules call for a sidesword – with up to 95 cm blade, with a fairly complex hilt allowed. Some people brought arming swords, some brought sideswords, I had both – and as usual, I specifically used whatever was closest to my opponent’s weapon. Turned out that some people were told arming swords were not allowed, others – that they were.
After the tournament, there was one additional rule that Ties Kool noticed, and that rule was really a big mistake – if a fighter drops out, he loses all his next fights with maximum score, giving an automatic win to his opponents. That means that if you are lucky enough to be in such a pool, you gain at least one free victory, and as exiting the pools was partially defined by victory count (and scored vs received points), that means you got a higher chance to exit the pools because of that. That was just a bad rule.
But enough about the rules themselves… flawed as they were, good judges and referees could work well with them. Except…
Changing the rules
The worst crime in any competitive sport – changing the rules at the last minute.
There were a handful of such changes, some of them justified, others – not so much.
On the first day it turned out Kvetun, who supplied 8 pairs of weapons for every category for fighters who couldn’t or wouldn’t bring their own, had sent 8 terrible bucklers. I did not have a chance to weigh them, but from knowing my bucklers, I’d say they were around 1,8 kg. The ruleset specifically defines 1,2 kg as a maximum weight. So it was decided – due to safety concerns – that buckler strikes would not be allowed, and would not be scored.
The problem with this is buckler strikes happen even when you don’t aim for them. In s&b a good tactic is to lift the buckler high and enter, covering your left side like that… which often results in a hit to the opponent’s mask. I got only warnings, but one fighter apparently was penalized 2 points and lost his match because of that rule.
Initially, the ruleset announced that shin cuts with the rapier would not be scored. While this is definitely a stupid rule (in my opinion it was added because some people can’t defend their legs), it was further worsened on the second day – because all the fighters in one delegation did not bring shin protectors, so intentionally hitting the shins would get you a black card (loss of the fight). That was just a whole new level of ridiculous.
While the rules state that standing grappling was allowed, it seems that this rule ran on the referees’ discretion. In some pools, grapples with the arms was allowed, while in others, as Maciej Kwiek informed me, any sort of grab other than the weapon was penalized. Supposedly that was another last minute change, but it seems not all of the pools got the memo.
Finally, we were all informed that any fighter could only enter one tournament. Yet the event starts, and we see some people being in both longsword and sword and buckler, or rapier and rapier and dagger. Combined with the fact that our team – CEE – were refused when we asked to change a fighter a week before the event (due to injury), and the fact that the examples of those fighting multiple events were Italians (not that I wasn’t happy to get a rematch with one of them), the whole thing felt a bit off. There was a clear double standard at work and the explanation that those were last minute changes because of the missing people does not really address the fact of how it was decided who got to fight in two tournaments.
Implementing the rules
And here we get to the real mess. With lacking (or non-existent) instruction to the judges, every referee almost seemed to be running a different tournament.
Now, lets face it – we couldn’t have the best judges in the world, though I can safely say there were some really good ones there. More than the average HEMA tourney. However, differing standards and a different local meta made a mess of things.
There was one referee and two judges for every arena. For longsword, we were actually 4 judges and 2 referees – and the judges switched after every fight, while the referees switched after every pool (there were a total of 12 pools in longsword, 4 per arena).
In our arena, there was one main problem – one of the referees wanted things to go fast. That led to him calling every hit, no matter how flat it was, and often ignoring the judges to make the bout go faster.
Me and my fellow judges tried to fight him on a couple of them, but after a point we started giving up. The pace was set and we were there more as official figures than judges. Often the referee, instead of taking a third vantage point, stood in front of me or my fellow judge, and I could see him not even looking at the judge behind him and making a call.
I am glad to say our team of judges read the actions well and we did some okay judging, even if we surely made mistakes. But the referee often ignored hit quality and our judgment a lot. The rotating system kept us fresh, but the referees – not so much.
From what I saw at the other pools and experienced in my own fighting, there were different issues. My sword and buckler pool had great judging while Mike Prendergast was a referee – then some Russian stepped in and he was a bit worse. Other pools in other weapons had honestly bad judges. Others had awesome ones. It was mostly luck, if you would end up with the good ones, the bad ones or the confused ones.
Calling of hits on yourself was allowed, but there were occasions where the referee ignored it – even when both fighters agreed that something entirely different had happened.
Blade grips were forbidden in rapier – another stupid rule – but some pools allowed them and didn’t score them as a point for the opponent.
The list could probably go on… but the general feel was of one of chaos and random chance deciding fights. This left a bad feeling in everyone, until the incident on the second day that hit upon an entirely different issue.
Unsportsmanlike conduct and throwing the referee under the bus
In rapier on the second day, one fighter made a protest against a call. Now, some people did protest a bit, with the usual exclamations of “Really?”, “Are you serious?”, etc., and referees, knowing emotions can run high, usually ignored those.
But this was a different kind of protest – rather, a tantrum, one that according to some included screaming at the judges.
Naturally, the referee, well-known American fencer and judge Kyle Griswold, used the last resort – a black card. Here is the first offence in the rules for which a black card might be given:
The fencer protests rudely or arrogantly against the Referee’s decisions;
It fits, doesn’t it? Not according to the committee. Despite the fact that Kristine Konsmo should have been the one tournament manager, suddenly, some Italians gathered and it was decided that the fighter in question would merely get a yellow card. A mere verbal warning. No loss of points, no loss of the match.
The fact that certain committee members intervened to save their own fighter was the one really big mistake of the organizers. They overruled a referee who followed the rules perfectly, and they encouraged awful, unsportsmanslike behaviour by allowing the fighter to continue with a slap on the wrist.
And here we come to the saving grace of the event – the fighting. While some of the organizers tried to play out the negativity towards the tournament as a divide between “martial” and “sport”, there was no such thing at the event itself.
Yes, there were certainly fighters who relied on the low bar for hit quality and who tried to game the ruleset, but they were few, and most did not reach the finals.
As far as the Russians go, they certainly had their share of more sport-oriented fighters, who cared little about the cut and a lot for the touch, but many were also serious, respectful and excellent fencers, whose blows would work absolutely fine even with sharps.
I did not have a chance to shoot much video (only during my rests as a judge, the longsword finals and a bit of the rapier finals), but you can still watch the entire event on the YouTube channel.
Due to the chaotic judging, some of the best fighters in longsword like Martin Fabian, Arto Fama, Michel Rensen, Ties Kool and others did not make it into the finals.
But there were still some great fights in the final 4, like a very close semifinal between Sergey Kultaev and Maciej Kwiek:
And a good final with Sergey Kultaev and Antoni Olbryschski, despite some overuse of a crappy Gayszlen by the second (he is a great guy and a good fencer, but as all of us who’ve reached finals know, your fencing there often gets crappier):
There were some silly actions, of course:
And some weird-looking, but successful ones:
Now, these clips are only a glimpse of what I saw and I took part in. I could not see every match, or tape every match, I couldn’t even tape most of mine. But there was some great fencing in all categories, and I encourage you to go and watch the stream again.
As far as injuries go, nothing unexpected from a top-level tournament – Anton Kohutovic got a microfracture on one of his fingers (SG 5 fingers, don’t use them for longsword), there were two concussions, and one guy hurt his knee from over-extension.
I can at least give you an idea by talking about my own experience. I enjoyed my fights immensely, I had a chance to face some of the best fighters in the tournament (two of the medalists in my category, for example), and I loved the fact there was nothing easy with any of my opponents.
I fought Evgeny Volodkov, who is 3rd in the world and extremely fast, and who went on to win gold – my only loss in the pools (by sudden death). I fought Kyle Griswold, Alyx Austin, Jacopo Penso, Gabriel Escobano, and they were all very tough opponents.
My first elimination fight was against Lubomir Peciva, another great fight where I barely won, and the only one I fully recorded:
My second elimination fight was against Paolo Urgesi. I was a bit miffed by the result, as I think I did much better than against Lubomir (who is a better fencer that Paolo both in practice and in ranking), but the judges didn’t see it that way. Still, it was a fun fight, and I am sure me and Paolo will have a rematch some day.
While there was no space for free sparring, or time, really, me and Aurelien Novignon, also in s&b, managed to sneak out of the hall and go behind it, where we had two nice sparring sessions with light gear:
In conclusion, the fighters and the fighting saved an otherwise flawed tournament.
Who is to blame?
Ah, that is the question. Should we blame Kristine Konsmo, the “official” tournament manager? No, because she was trying to fix messes left and right all the time, she tried to reason with the committee and fought for more sensible decisions constantly.
Should we blame the helpers, like the Americans who stepped in the second day (McKenzie Ewing, Tim Kaufman and others)? No, because from what I saw, they actually prevented a bigger crisis from happening.
A huge amount of the problems in this tournament were because of bad planning. A strange, complicated ruleset, which was poorly presented and explained, constant changes of key rules, no coordination between judges’ understanding, no preparation or instructions for the judges, tournament gear that broke the rules… The few key decisions the committee made on the sport favoured fighters from their own clubs and countries.
It did not ruin the event, certainly, but it left a bad taste. Remember – we all spend a lot of money to go there and compete. In the end it felt like we were a commodity to be used. A good tournament should have the fighters and their experience as it’s main focus.
For some reason there was no bronze match, instead, the losers in the semis both got bronze. And yes, the Russians got 8 medals. They had some awesome fighters, and they were the only ones who chose their delegation by holding a tournament.
1. Antoni Olbrychski (PL)
2. Sergey Kultaev (RU)
3. Jack Gassmann (CH) / Maciej Kwiek (PL)
Sword and Buckler
1. Evgeny Volodkov (RU)
2. Vadim Kravchenko (RU)
3. Kristofer Stanson (SE) / Paolo Urgesi (IT)
Rapier & dagger
1. Kirill Danilov (RU)
2. Ivan Novichenko (RU)
3. Sergei Volkov (RU) / Ruslan Urazbahtin (RU)
1. Dmitry Gibadulin (RU)
2. Rob Childs (US)
3. Emanuele Fichera (IT) / Matteo D’Uffizi (IT)
The Exhibition bouts
Both days ended with a group of fighters going to the city center for a demonstration of HEMA in front of a big crowd.
Matt Galas and Kristine Konsmo, together with a local HEMAist, did a wonderful presentation of HEMA, with different weapons, including typical longsword vs longsword, rapier vs rapier, but also smallsword, saber, s&b vs longsword.
I managed to tape an awesome bout between Francesco Loda and Ton Puey, two of the best rapier fighters in the world, who really did an exemplary demo for the crowd:
You can watch more on the YouTube channel, as the bouts were also streamed live. Enjoy them, and think about what it is to fight in a tournament, and then go to do a demo under the sun in 28 degrees Celsius. Again, the fighters did the hard work.
Was… not planned. Yes, I know there were too many people, and I know a dinner for 150 is not exactly something in the budget, but it is still the first HEMA event I have gone to that didn’t have a celebratory evening. Dijon has 200+ people and still plans something for every night.
So we took things into our own hands. I shared a room with the Slovaks and the Polish, and they were a great bunch, but I spent my Friday evening working, and on Saturday I was happy to be adopted for a bit by the UK team, also a great group of people.
On Sunday evening a party in the dorms sort of errupted out of nowhere. I had already refused an invite from Antek Olbrychski to go drink with the Russians (been there, done that), so I was glad to see a good mix of almost 30 people somehow jammed into one of the rooms.
It was a fun night, we stayed late, we had fun. It doesn’t take an organized social event for HEMAists to socialize. But it would’ve been nice, you know.
Was the Minsk event good for HEMA?
And here is the key question.
If we look at the event as a whole, it certainly was a good one overall. The exhibit was something few people would normally see – treatises and the weapons used in them together, the conferences were supposedly great (although I wish they would post videos from them online), and the fighting in the tournament was at times amazing, and overall at a very high level.
But did it generate good publicity for HEMA? Not quite.
While we were visited by some high officials, there weren’t actually many people in the audience in the tournament hall. Much more saw the demo in the city center, but that would boost HEMA in Minsk and nowhere else.
And while the European games are shown around the world, they are not the Olympic games. No one would show a tournament in some weird niche sport that was part of the cultural programme of the Games. I specifically watched different sports channels in the last week, and while I saw some coverage of the Minsk games, there was nothing on HEMA.
Will this be a step towards a future of HEMA in the Olympics? Maybe, although I am not sure that is a good thing. The Olympic games have ruined pretty much any combat sport that has become a regular event in them. They have become a cesspool of corruption, doping scandals, political and nationalistic rivalries… While I am not against the idea of HEMA becoming a professional sport some day, jumping to the Olympics is a foolish thing, in my opinion.
What was the real good that HEMA Minsk 2019 did? It started the big debates. What do we want from a HEMA tournament? What do we want from HEMA as a competitive sport? Are guys who want to do things more “martially” (whatever that means) and those who want more of a “sport” approach really incompatible? Are Russians really all bashy? (nope). Are our local HEMA cultures so different? Where is our common ground?
We had a unique selection of fighters in Minsk. And consequentially, a unique collection of voices. We had in the same place people who would otherwise meet only after years of travel to many different events. We made connections that will make the HEMA community closer. It was an experience like no other, and an event like no other. It was a pain in the ass, and a good lesson.