On the Fence at the Olympics

It’s not as crowded as you might expect. In fact, the crowds in non-Olympic London seem somewhat typical for the summer tourist season. But many of the high streets almost feel deserted. The venues and Olympic-themed sites are crowded, and the trains from those sites are certainly full, but the rest of London is calm and carrying on.

And what the crowds may lack in volume at Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square, they make up for with an exuberance that I’ve never experienced in London in the height of the tourist season. I’m used to a certain tension among crowds of tourists—they’re usually tired, often lost, and generally get in the way of the locals. But there is a current of Olympic spirit running through London, and it’s palpable.

And whether you saw them on TV or in person, there’s been no shortage of Olympic moments in just these first few days, such as

  • the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer who sprinted for the finish in the 400 IM.
  • the French men’s relay team snatching the gold from Phelps & Locate.
  • Great Britain’s historic gymnastics qualification and Bronze medal in men’s team final.
  • the inclusion of women on every team in the games.

And of course, there’s the inspiring and heart-wrenching stories of determination, both from contenders—like the Irish gymnast who was told as a child that he’d never walk again, or the 37-year-old gymnast competing for Germany who’s literally old enough to be the mother of her teammates—and underdogs—like the sculler from Niger, who only began rowing a few years ago, or the only female athlete from Turkmenistan, who finished the 400-metre freestyle heats a full minute behind the second-to-last-place finish.

I was lucky enough to witness a historic Olympic moment this week while watching fencing for the first time in my life. Shin A Lam of Korea lost her semi-final to Britta Heidemann of Germany, after an error in timing allowed the German to score the final point. Shin had the priority (assigned randomly) to win the bout in the event of a tie.

Korean woman in fencing gear facing the camera, standing on the piste with her helmet on the ground.

Shin A Lam of Korea, Women’s Team Épée Final, July 30, 2012. Photo courtesy Ainsley Switzer.


She remained on the piste for an hour while her federation first challenged the result and then appealed the ruling in the German’s favour.

She sat in a quiet, if tearful, dignity in the centre of the arena with the eyes of thousands upon her.

Rules dictate she must wait alone—she cannot talk to coaches or teammates and may only speak with officials when they approach her.

Korean woman in fencing gear, sitting on the piste with her back to the camera.

Shin A Lam waiting for judgement. Photo courtesy Ainsley Switzer.


It’s well known that Korea is one of those countries where winning a medal sets you up for life, and the injustice of an official’s timing error quickly turned the crowd in her favour—even fans of Heidemann. We knew the appeal was unlikely to work, and few believed the German should be penalized (it’s natural to favour the person who scores the point over the person who won the proverbial coin toss), but Shin’s determination and sportsmanship was remarkable. Either way, she would have to fence again—for bronze or for gold—and her potential opponents were behind the scenes getting their game faces on.

The officials eventually escorted her off the piste and the bronze medal bout started about an hour and a half after the gold medal match had been scheduled. Shin started the bout with a bang, channeling her frustration into anger—and I hope feeding off the support of the crowd. But in the end, the Chinese fencer gained momentum, and Shin lost her last chance at a medal. The German too was affected—losing to the twelfth seed Ukrainian in the gold medal match.

Not all Olympic moments are about the ecstasy of winning—sometimes they’re about the agony of defeat. In one frozen second, Shin A Lam went from a guaranteed medal to a disappointing fourth place, and I went from being an ambivalent spectator to a fan of fencing.

This post originally appeared on  Travel + Escape.