Fencing shaken by disqualifications and accusations ahead of the Olympics

Fencing is a niche but vital Olympic sport, contested at every Summer Games since 1896. Yet despite its genteel reputation and its simple goal – to touch an opponent with the blade before being touched – the sport has been long full of drama and suspicion.

Two months before the Paris Olympics, international fencing is gripped by questions about the integrity of refereeing, allegations of preferential treatment and concerns among top athletes and coaches that their sport's intricate connections could help decide who gets to compete at the Games .

The federation that governs fencing in the United States, USA Fencing, recently suspended two international referees after they admitted communicating with each other during an Olympic qualifying tournament in California. He became so concerned about two other referees that he asked the sport's global governing body to ensure those two judges were no longer assigned to any matches involving Americans.

And just last week, more than half a dozen elite fencers called for tougher punishments and urgent action to protect a sport they say is “vulnerable to unfair refereeing and match-fixing.”

“Part of me feels so silly thinking all this time” that the sport was built on honor, integrity and dedication, said Andrew Mackiewicz, 28, an American saber fencer who competed at Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

“It wasn't,” he added. “It was like a mirage.” He said he stepped away from the sport in February because of his concerns about unscrupulous refereeing.

While fencing relies on electronic scoring, it is the referees who analyze the complicated rules of attack during each match and decide whether a point, or a touch, is valid. These rules bring an element of subjectivity to scoring, and saber fencing, one of the sport's three disciplines along with épée and foil, can be particularly challenging as its athletes throw themselves explosively at each other. each other and land touches almost simultaneously.

Subjectivity “creates a lot of room for corruption,” which can be difficult to prove, said Yury Gelman, a longtime fencing coach at St. John's University in New York who will coach his seventh Olympics at the Paris Games. In an interview, Mr. Gelman expressed frustration that little has been done to address the problems of saber fencing.

The referees suspended last month by USA Fencing, Jacobo Morales and Brandon Romo, were barred from judging matches at tournaments overseen by the federation for nine months. They denied any manipulation of the match. An investigation into their conduct began after they appeared to have communicated during a January match involving a famous American saber fencer, Tatiana Nazlymov, 19, in an Olympic qualifying tournament.

USA Fencing had initially sought 10-year bans for both men but ultimately settled on lesser punishments after a disciplinary committee report, reviewed by The New York Times, found “the appearance of impropriety” but no credible evidence in support of collusion or other manipulation.

However, they were not the only referees to attract the attention of the American federation. Months earlier, Phil Andrews, CEO of USA Fencing, had written with alarm to the sport's global governing body, the International Fencing Federation, to express concern that there would “likely be improper officiating” of bouts that they involved Mrs. Nazlymov and another the leading American saber fencer, Mitchell Saron.

In its letter, sent Dec. 3 and reviewed by the Times, USA Fencing said it was primarily interested in two referees, Vasil Milenchev of Bulgaria and Yevgeniy Dyaokokin of Kazakhstan. Video evidence, the letter said, indicates that calls made by those officials in matches involving Mr. Saron and Ms. Nazlymov showed “likely favoritism” toward them.

As a result, USA Fencing requested that Mr. Milenchev and Mr. Dyaokokin no longer be assigned to matches involving American fencers. Mr Andrews said he understood that the International Fencing Federation responded to the letter with an investigation but was not aware of its outcome.

The international federation did not respond to requests for comment, but both referees continue to judge matches involving American fencers. Attempts to reach Mr Milenchev and Mr Dyaokokin through the international federation were unsuccessful.

In a draft of a second letter dated December 18 and also reviewed by The Times, Mr Andrews informed Ms Nazlymov and Mr Saron that the federation was aware that “potential preferential referee treatment” was benefiting their performance and had warned that they could not be deprived of some points accumulated towards Olympic qualification if “clear evidence” of match manipulation emerged.

But the final version of the letter, sent to athletes the next day and revised after this article was published, did not include the threat of punishment. He said the federation “has no reason at this time to believe that you are personally responsible for, or even aware of, these actions taken by others to further your international performance.” However, the letter added: “We write to formally inform you that we are aware of this alleged manipulation of the sport.”

Ms. Nazlymov and Mr. Saron have since been named to the American team for the Paris Olympics. By March, USA Fencing's concerns appeared to have eased. Mr Saron admitted through a spokesman that he had received a text message on March 6, reviewed by The Times, from a federation official saying it was not a cause for concern. And preliminary results of an independent investigation into match manipulation in saber fencing found “no evidence that individual U.S. fencers were actively involved in the manipulation of their own attacks,” the federation said in late April.

Ms. Nazlymov did not respond to a request for comment. But her mother, Zheng Wang, wrote in an email that “Tatiana is absolutely innocent and the accusation of cheating and match-fixing is ridiculous.”

The latest flashpoint came in early January, when Ms. Nazlymov was involved in the North American Cup match in San Jose, California.

According to a U.S. Fencing Disciplinary Committee, with the score tied at 12-12, Mr. Romo began asking Mr. Morales for input before awarding points to one of the fencers, and Mr. Morales admitted to responding via hand gestures . Such communication constitutes a violation of the fencing rules.

Howard Jacobs, a California lawyer who represented Mr. Morales, the more experienced umpire, said that his client was simply confirming calls that the less experienced Mr. Romo had intended to make, and that no decisions had been changed to because of their communications. According to the report, Mr. Romo said that he was only seeking confirmation of his planned calls.

A video posted online showing Mr. Morales' signals also showed Ms. Nazlymov's coach sitting nearby and talking to Mr. Morales at one point during the game. Neither referee disputed the video, USA Fencing said.

According to testimony at a hearing, the coach, Fikrat Valiyev, asked Mr. Morales who Mr. Romo was and another question unrelated to the meeting, but the two did not discuss any calls, Mr. Jacobs. Ms. Nazlymov won the match narrowly, 15-14.

Mr Andrews, USA Fencing's chief executive, said there was “no evidence that Tatiana herself was at fault” in the arbitration dispute.

Mrs. Nazlymov is a member of one of the most prominent fencing families. Her grandfather, Vladimir Nazlymov, won three Olympic gold medals in team saber competition for the former Soviet Union, and her father, Vitali Nazlymov, is a former NCAA individual champion.

His coach, Valiyev, is a two-time Olympic saber fencer from Azerbaijan, but he also exemplifies the complicated relationships that exist in elite fencing. In addition to serving as Ms. Nazlymov's primary coach, he works at the Nazlymov family fencing academy in Maryland and as an international referee at the Olympic level.

Ms. Wang, Ms. Nazlymov's mother, said in an email that her daughter had been falsely accused in what she described as a “doctored” video posted in January by Andrew Fischl, an American coach and former saber fencer elite.

Mr. Fischl, who regularly posts fencing videos, said he had obtained two raw video clips from the January match and that he had zoomed in on the bout but had not changed the order of any actions, distorted any events or of having made any accusation. “I just showed what happened and thought, this is strange and inappropriate,” Mr. Fischl said.

Mr. Valiyev was not accused of any impropriety and said in an email that he had never attempted to rig matches. But he has come under scrutiny in other videos posted online for possible conflicts of interest as he coached and refereed in the same competition and refereed matches involving Uzbek fencers while Vladimir Nazlymov coached the Uzbekistan national team or individual Uzbek athletes.

Mr Valiyev, responding by email to Vitali Nazlymov, said he had behaved according to the rules. But the two coaches recognize that “fencing is a small world and conflicts exist everywhere.”

Eli Dershwitz, 28, the 2023 U.S. world saber champion, said that although irregularities occurred in fencing “all the time,” he believed in the integrity of the sport and his Olympic teammates. “If I thought something was obviously wrong going on, I would say something,” Dershwitz said.

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