The International Corruption Crisis Rocking Olympic Fencing

Sports Scandal
The International Corruption Crisis Rocking Olympic Fencing

In April 2016, two sabre fencers faced off in a now-famous bout that would determine which of them would qualify for the 2016 Olympic games. Great Britain’s James Honeybone and Bulgaria’s Pancho Paskov stood in each other’s way in the quarterfinal round of the European qualification tournament. The bout began normally enough — Bulgaria’s Paskov claimed a modest early lead. But just three points into the match, it became apparent that something was off; Honeybone was visibly confused by referee Marius Florea’s calls. 

As the bout progressed and call after call went Paskov’s way, Honeybone made frequent appeals to Florea, all to no avail. His only points came from when Paskov missed him entirely, or when it became too difficult to call anything else and still save face. In the end, Paskov won 15 to 7 and became an Olympian. The bout, in fencing circles, is widely considered a farce. 

Fast forward to early this year, and an issue that has long been the subject of whispers and knowing looks has been given a very public voice. An explosive YouTube video, titled “Fencing’s Biggest Open Secret,” names Florea as well as several other highly rated and influential sabre referees and lays out a series of patterns and coincidences that paint a disturbing picture. The video was posted by “ponce de león fencing” — someone who only identified themself, even in an email conversation with Splinter, as a retired Olympic sabre fencer.

The video analyzes tournament footage and statistics to convey ponce de león’s suspicions about a small cadre of powerful referees and coaches — each invested in the success of specific athletes or national fencing programs — and suggests that they have bent or broken rules to give their preferred athletes a leg up in competition.

“Statistically unlikely things should not be happening at all but they appear to be happening regularly and only to the benefit of a very select group of people,” ponce de león told Splinter.

As the Paris Olympics loom, the video and other related allegations that have since emerged have dealt a serious blow to a sport otherwise known for elegance, sophistication, and camaraderie, and suggests that there is widespread corruption at the highest levels of fencing.

USA Fencing (USFA) has launched a formal investigation into the subject, and multiple fencers have retired over the refereeing situation including, recently, American Olympian Andrew Mackiewicz, whose public statement included “a call for integrity and honor.”

Sabre Fencing 101

For all of the ways that fencing can be hard to pick up and understand, especially for the casual onlooker, the rules of the game are actually quite simple: stay within the 14-meter-long strip (or piste) that makes up the field of play, stay in front of the opponent (no circling one another like in the movies), and hit the opponent before they hit you. 

The intricacies of this simple dance, however, are extremely hard to spot, especially at the blinding pace at which modern sabre is fenced, as athletes leap at each other and whip their blades nearly too fast to see. It is so difficult to judge what happened in a given action that fencers assume their referee will make occasional errors and bad calls. In general, these errors are considered inevitable and quickly forgiven as part of the game.

This accepted degree of subjectiveness provides referees with tremendous power. It offers a veil of credibility to referees who favor one athlete over another and might try to rig a bout, or, more forgivingly, perhaps unknowingly offer preferential treatment to one athlete over the other. Fencing referees are difficult to challenge in the moment. Athletes can appeal individual judgments to a committee, but they can only question the referee’s interpretation of the rules — not their account of what happened. In high-level tournaments where video replay is available, athletes are only allotted a small number of video appeals and must be selective about when to use them. 

A Mountain of Coincidences

One of the most egregious examples of perceived corruption is what appeared to be a widely-coordinated effort to qualify Kuwait fencer Yousef Alshamlan for the Olympics, whose father was head of the country’s fencing federation. In one instance, his coach, then-retired international referee Marco Siesto of Italy, was filmed speaking to the referee of a pivotal match before it began, informing him that Alshamlan’s victory would secure an Olympic qualification, but that his opponent was too far down in the rankings and wouldn’t qualify either way. In footage of the bout, Siesto can be seen running up to yell at the referee whenever a call is made in the opponent’s favor and, over time, the referee begins awarding questionable points to Alshamlan instead, even contradicting earlier calls.

“I think part of [the problem] is the protection that the coach offers and the referee not wanting to deal with the pressure they can assert,” ponce de león told Splinter.

In the aftermath, ponce de león’s video says, Siesto widely complained that he would have earned a several-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus for qualifying a student for the Olympics.

Ponce de león insinuated that years later, at the 2023 Kuwait Satellite World Cup, Alshamlan had a path cleared for him by two sabre fencers — Bulgaria’s Mandov and Italy’s Marciano. These are stellar fencers, neither of whom had a clear reason for being there other than, the video suggests, to eliminate anyone else who might give Alshamlan a run for his money and then lose to him when they were the only ones left standing.

These are serious allegations to levy against athletes and national fencing programs. Throwing a bout, especially with tournament qualification on the line, is considered unspeakable among fencers. However, video footage of Alshamlan’s bouts against Mandov and Marciano does appear to show a distinct lack of intensity compared to their prior matches — suggesting Mandov and Marciano may have gone easy on him. Offered as further evidence of alleged coordination is the observation that Milenchev is refereeing even though a fellow Bulgarian made the semifinals — which is a violation of FIE rules.

The problem has broad tendrils. One referee centered in many of the complaints is Fikrat Valiyev. He is currently employed at Nazlymov Fencing, a fencing club in Maryland that is the product of the father-and-son duo Vladimir and Vitali Nazlymov, who both represented the Soviet Union with illustrious competitive and coaching careers, then later moved to the United States. Even aside from Vladimir and Vitali’s myriad Olympic successes, Nazlymov Fencing has made a name for itself as one of the most preeminent sabre clubs and training grounds in the country, and Vitali’s daughter Tatiana has now recently qualified for her first Olympics. Tatiana, as the descendent of what’s sometimes called “fencing royalty,” is allegedly the recipient of some extra help from referees too.

Just in April, Valiyev refereed several important bouts of the 2024 Cadet and Junior World Championships, which is a tournament for each country’s rising stars and is on par with the Olympics for the 17- and 19-and-under age groups. On multiple occasions, Valiyev refereed bouts that ended up tied at game point, 14 to 14, then awarded a close 15th touch to an Uzbek fencer. In one instance captured on video, the crowd uproariously booed his call — an extremely uncommon breach of proper fencing hall conduct. In another, he is shown on video walking over to consult a video replay, which is currently being operated by Vitaly Logvin, a member of the FIE executive committee, who happens to hail from Uzbekistan. Vladimir Nazlymov has been the head coach of the Soviet national team, and much more recently, the Uzbekistan national team as well.

The USFA recently announced preliminary findings of an investigation it launched after American fencers such as Tatiana Nazlymov were highlighted in ponce de león‘s and other videos on the subject. The organization announced on April 24th that it was suspending two referees, Jacobo Morales and Brandon Romo, who were captured on video making questionable calls in favor of Tatiana Nazlymov during a national tournament in the United States. Several times, referee Romo looks over at Morales, who is overseeing the bout, before making a call. Morales points over to Nazlymov, and Romo calls the point in her favor. Sitting next to Morales in the video is Nazlymov’s coach, Valiyev. A follow-up video by ponce de león suggests that Morales and Valiyev may have exchanged favors.

The USFA suspended both Morales and Romo from refereeing for nine months and ruled that they could not referee together for five years. On April 30th, a group of Team USA fencers put out a statement criticizing the USFA for what they call a “weak and futile” response to the problem — a position earlier shared by ponce de león and public comments by other fencers. American sabre fencer and coach Andrew Fischl, who is better known as CyrusofChaos for his YouTube channel that serves as a major repository of fencing footage and analysis, publicly called the response “incredibly weak. Regarding athletes themselves, the USFA announced that it had found “no evidence that individual U.S. fencers were actively involved in manipulating their own bouts as athletes.” 

There is no direct, material evidence of corruption or conspiracy. “I have been very careful to make no allegations in any of my videos because, yes, it is all just a series of patterns and ‘coincidences,’” ponce de león told Splinter. “Indeed, there is no hard proof but, as I said in my first video, these people are smart. They don’t text each other or sign contracts that will be found.”

Smoking gun or not, it is still broadly understood that there is a problem, and ponce de león told Splinter that they “think we have enough circumstantial evidence to sanction many people at this point.” The relatively sudden attention to refereeing and other discrepancies has led some in the sport to despair over its future. 

The FIE has remained quiet. Splinter contacted multiple FIE executive committee members to request an interview or comment, as well as several of the fencers and referees mentioned in this story; none have responded.

“The FIE will never say anything about this,” ponce de león said. “Their decisions are very opaque by the standards of most organizations I have encountered. Worst of all, they are happy with the status quo, and admitting this is happening in any way will undermine their reputation as an organization. Everyone is scared of backlash and retaliation, but it is this exact culture of denial through fear that enables this pattern of behavior to continue.”

There are changes that can be reversed, problems that can be remedied, Fischl argues in his video response, insisting that fencing’s entire reputation is on the line. He ends his video with a desperate plea: “Americans are quitting over this,” he says, “because they feel their passions and life pursuits are pointless.”

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