Both fencers and referees often ask about what constitutes “falling” during fencing and when it should be penalized. An oft-heard refrain is “aren’t I allowed three points of contact with the strip?” and “isn’t four points of contact falling?”
Why we have a “falling” rule
The rule penalizing a “touch while falling” is intended to penalize fencers that throw themselves off balance or leave their feet to evade or deliver a hit (with regards to falling; jumping is permitted). This action can be deliberate, or at can be as a result of reckless or uncontrolled fencing.
Cases like these are actually discussed in rule t.87.2, which stipulates that “irregular actions” are subject to penalty. There are several examples in the text of t.87.2, but no codified descriptions of exactly what body motions are “allowed” or “not allowed”. These are subject to the referee’s best judgment. The penalty chart lists “touches made during or after a fall”, which are a subset of the “irregular actions” mentioned in t.87.2.
The rule is not intended to penalize fencers who, in the course of normal/controlled fencing actions, experience an accidental slip (for example, as their foot lands at the end of a lunge).
The “points of contact” myth
The idea of “points of contact” is a long-standing informal mnemonic used by some referees, and taught in some referee seminars, to determine what is a controlled motion and what is an uncontrolled fall. It is not mentioned in the rule book at all, and is not the primary determining factor as to what constitutes “falling”. The origin is likely that it was extrapolated by inference from rule t.21.1, which states “Displacing target and ducking are allowed even if during the action the unarmed hand and/or knee of the back leg come into contact with the strip.”
The idea of “points of contact” is just one way that a referee can use his or her judgment to determine whether or not a motion is controlled or uncontrolled. The points in rule t.21.1 about the unarmed hand or knee of the rear leg are specific examples, and were added to keep referees from over-penalizing controlled displacements. They are also artifacts of the translation from the official French to English.
Judging a fall correctly
When judging whether or not a fencer “fell” (made an uncontrolled motion to evade or score a touch), I suggest you consider the following factors:
1) Did the fencer’s motion result in them ending in a stable position on the strip with at least one foot on the piste? Could they then remain stable in that position? If so, the motion is probably “controlled” and should not be penalized.
2) Did the fencer lose contact with the strip with their feet? Is their primary point of contact now their posterior, hip, stomach, etc? If so, the motion is “uncontrolled” and should be penalized.
3) Was the fencer attempting to evade, or were they making an orthodox fencing action (a lunge or retreat for example) and they slipped? In the vast majority of cases, a fencer making a regular action who slips owing to piste conditions should not be penalized. The referee’s judgment is more or less the sole arbiter in these cases.
Halting the action
Regardless of whether or not a fencer is penalized for a fall or evasion, should a fencer fall or evade in such a way as to bring their unarmed hand or rear knee in contact with the strip without a touch being scored, the referee should call “halt.” Normal rules around halts then apply; an action in progress at the time of the halt should be allowed to finish.
Good luck out there,
On behalf of the Rules Committee and Referees’ Commission