Fencing Rattled by Suspensions and Accusations Ahead of Olympics

Fencing is a niche but essential sport at the Olympics, contested at every Summer Games since 1896. But despite its bland reputation and simple goal — touch your opponent with your blade before you touch them — the sport has long been a fixture at the Olympics. drama And suspicion.

Two months ago Paris OlympicsInternational fencing faces questions about the integrity of the judging, accusations of preferential treatment and concerns among top athletes and coaches that the tangled relationships in their sport could help determine who competes in the Games.

The federation that governs fencing in the United States of America, USA Fencing, Two international referees were recently suspended After they admitted to hooking up with each other during the Olympic qualifying tournament in California. She became so concerned about two other referees that she asked the sport’s world governing body to ensure that those two referees are not assigned to any matches involving Americans.

And just last week, more than six elite duelists It called for tougher sanctions and urgent action To protect a sport which they say is “vulnerable to unfair refereeing and match-fixing”.

“Part of me feels so foolish for thinking all this time” that the sport is built on honor, integrity and dedication, said Andrew Mackiewicz, 28, an American fencer who competed in the world fencing championships. Tokyo Olympics In 2021.

“It wasn’t like that,” he added. “It was like a mirage.” He said he retired from the sport last February due to his concerns about unscrupulous refereeing.

While fencing relies on electronic scoring, it is the referees who analyze the complex attacking rules during each match and decide whether a point or touch is valid or not. These rules add a personal element to the scoring process, and fencing, one of the three sports along with epee and shisha, can be quite a challenge because its players explosively lunge at each other and touch almost simultaneously.

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

The referees who were suspended by the American Fencing Federation last month, Jacobo Morales and Brandon Romo, were banned from refereeing matches in tournaments supervised by the federation for a period of nine months. They denied any match-fixing. The investigation into their behavior began after they appeared to communicate during a match last January involving top American fencer Tatiana Nazlymov, 19, in an Olympic qualifying tournament.

USA Fencing initially sought 10-year bans for the two men, but ultimately decided to impose lesser penalties after a disciplinary committee report, reviewed by The New York Times, found an “appearance of impropriety” but no credible evidence to support collusion or any foul play. last.

But they were not the only referees who caught the attention of the American Federation. Months ago, Phil Andrews, CEO of the US Fencing Federation, wrote concernedly to the sport’s global governing body, the International Fencing Federation, to express concern that there was “potentially improper refereeing” of matches involving Ms. Nazlymov and others. Leading American fencer Mitchell Saron.

In its letter, sent on December 3 and seen by The Times, USA Fencing told it was primarily interested in the two referees, Vasyl Melinchev of Bulgaria and Evgeniy Dyaukkin of Kazakhstan. The letter said that video evidence indicated that calls made by these referees at matches in which Mr. Saron and Ms. Nazlymov participated showed “possible favoritism” toward them.

As a result, USA Fencing has requested that Mr. Melinchev and Mr. Dyaukkin not be assigned to bouts involving any American fencers. Mr Andrews said he understood the International Fencing Federation had responded to the letter by conducting an investigation but was not aware of its findings.

The International Federation did not respond to requests for comment, nor did both rulings Continue to referee matches Involving American fencers. Attempts to reach Mr. Melinchev and Mr. Dyaukkin through the International Federation were unsuccessful.

In a second draft letter dated December 18 and also seen by The Times, Mr Andrews informed Ms Nazlymov and Mr Saron that the union was aware that “potentially preferential arbitration treatment” was beneficial to their performance and warned them against it. They could be stripped of some of the points they accumulated during Olympic qualification if “substantial evidence” of match-fixing emerges.

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

Ms. Nazlymov and Mr. Saron have since been named to the U.S. team for the Paris Olympics. By March, fears of dueling in the USA seemed to have subsided. Mr. Saron admitted through his spokesman that on March 6, he received a text message, reviewed by The Times, from an Etihad official saying there was nothing to worry about. And the preliminary results from Independent investigation The federation said in late April that an investigation into fencing match-fixing found “no evidence that American fencers were actively involved in the tampering of their matches.”

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

The most recent flashpoint came in early January, when Ms. Nazlymov took part in a North American Cup match in San Jose, California.

According to the USA Fencing Disciplinary Committee, with the score tied 12-12, Mr. Romo began seeking input from Mr. Morales before awarding points to either fencer, and Mr. Morales acknowledged the response via hand movements. Such communication is a violation of the rules of dueling.

Howard Jacobs, a California lawyer representing Mr. Morales, the more experienced arbiter, said his client was simply confirming the calls the less experienced Mr. Romo intended to make, and that no decisions were changed because of his calls. According to the report, Mr. Romo said he was merely seeking confirmation of his intended calls.

a Video posted online Which showed Mr. Morales’ gestures also showed Ms. Nazlymov’s coach sitting near Mr. Morales and talking to him at some point during the match. USA Fencing said neither referee objected to the video.

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

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

Ms. Nazlymov belongs to one of the most prominent fencing families. Her grandfather, Vladimir Nazlymov, won three Olympic gold medals in the team saber event for the former Soviet Union, and her father, Vitaly Nazlymov, is a former NCAA individual champion.

Her coach, Mr. Valeev, is a two-time Olympic fencing champion from Azerbaijan, but he also embodies the complex relationships found 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 wrongfully accused in what she described as a “fake” video posted in January by Andrew Fishel, the American coach and former elite fencer.

Mr. Fishel, who posts the duel regularly VideosHe said he obtained two pieces of raw video from the January game and zoomed in on the game but did not change the order of any action, distort any event or make any accusations. “I just showed what happened and it was weird and inappropriate,” Mr. Fishel said.

Mr. Valeev has not been accused of any wrongdoing and said in an email that he never tried to fix the matches. But he has come under scrutiny in other videos posted online for potential conflicts of interest by coaching and refereeing in the same competition, and by refereeing matches involving Uzbek fencers while Vladimir Nazlimov was coaching the Uzbek national team or individual Uzbek athletes.

Mr. Valeev, in his email response with Vitaly Nazlymov, said he acted according to the rules. But the coaches acknowledged that “fencing is a small world and conflicts exist everywhere.”

Eli Dershowitz, 28, the 2023 world fencing champion from the United States, said that although fencing violations happen “all the time,” he believes in the integrity of the sport and his teammates on the Olympic team. “If I thought there was something glaringly wrong going on, I would say something,” Mr. Dershowitz said.

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