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On the eve of the Olympics, fencing is in trouble with suspensions and accusations

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Fencing is a niche but fundamental sport in the Olympics, competing at every Summer Olympics since 1896.However, despite fencing’s reputation for elegance and its simple goal (hit your opponent with your sword before being hit), the sport has long been riddled with drama and Suspect.

Two months before school starts paris olympic gamesInternational fencing has been dogged by questions about the integrity of referees, accusations of preferential treatment and concerns from top athletes and coaches that the sport’s intricate connections could help decide who makes it to the Olympics.

The federation that governs the sport of fencing in the United States, USA Fencing, Two international referees recently suspended They admitted to communicating with each other during the Olympic qualifying tournament in California. It has grown increasingly concerned about the other two referees to the point of asking the sport’s global governing body to ensure the two officials are no longer assigned to any games involving Americans.

Just last week, more than half a dozen elite fencers Call for tougher penalties and urgent action to protect a sport they say is “vulnerable to unfair officiating and match-fixing”.

“I think it’s so stupid that I keep thinking that this sport is built on honor, integrity and dedication,” said 28-year-old U.S. fencer Andrew Mackiewicz. tokyo olympics 2021.

“That’s not the case,” he added. “It was like a mirage.” He said he quit the sport in February over concerns about unethical officiating.

While fencing relies on electronic scoring, referees parse complex offensive rules in each game and decide whether a score or touch is valid. These rules introduce subjectivity into scoring, and fencing, one of the sport’s three major disciplines along with epee and foil, can be particularly challenging because of its explosive dashes between athletes, Hitting the ball almost simultaneously.

Longtime fencing coach Yury Gelman of New York’s St. John’s University, who will coach in his seventh Olympics in Paris, said subjectivity “creates a lot of room for corruption,” and that it’s easy to Difficult to prove. In an interview, Mr. Gelman expressed frustration that little had been done to address fencing’s problems.

Referees Jacob Morales and Brandon Romo, who were suspended by USA Fencing last month, have been banned from refereeing at championships overseen by the federation for nine months. They deny any fixing of the match. In January, the top U.S. saber athlete, 19-year-old Tatiana Nazlymov, appeared to have an exchange during a match at an Olympic qualifying event, and then there was criticism of their behavior. investigated.

USA Fencing originally sought a 10-year ban for both men, but ultimately decided to reduce the punishment after a disciplinary panel report reviewed by The New York Times found “inappropriate conduct” but no credible evidence to support collusion or otherwise. Manipulative behavior.

However, they are not the only referees who have caught the attention of U.S. Soccer. A few months ago, USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews wrote to the International Fencing Federation, the sport’s global governing body, expressing disapproval of Nazlimov and another competitor. Concerns about “possible improper refereeing”. Top American saber athlete Mitchell Salone.

In a letter sent on December 3 and reviewed by The Times, USA Fencing said its main concerns were with two referees, Bulgaria’s Vasil Milichev and Kazakhstan’s Yevgeny Di. Yakkin. The letter states that video evidence shows that the referees’ decisions in games involving Saron and Nazlimov showed “possible favoritism” against them.

As a result, USA Fencing requested that Mr. Milenchev and Mr. Diakkin no longer participate in any competitions for U.S. fencers. Mr Andrews said he was aware that the International Fencing Federation had responded to the letter and conducted an investigation, but was not aware of the outcome.

The International Federation did not respond to a request for comment, but the two referees Continue to judge the competition Involving American fencers. Attempts to contact Mr Milenchev and Mr Dyaokokin through the International Federation were unsuccessful.

In a second letter from USA Fencing to Ms. Nazlimov and Mr. Salon on December 18, Mr. Andrews told the athletes that USA Fencing was aware of “potentially preferential treatment of referees” who were benefiting. their performance in international competitions and warned them that if “strong evidence” of match-fixing emerged, they could be stripped of some of the points they had accumulated to qualify for the Olympics.

Ms. Nazlimov and Mr. Salon were subsequently named to the U.S. team for the Paris Olympics. By March, USA Fencing’s concerns seemed to have eased. Salon acknowledged through a spokesman that he received a text message on March 6 from a federation official, reviewed by The Times, saying he had nothing to worry about.

Andrews said in an interview that there was no evidence that the fencers knew about or deliberately took advantage of improper refereeing.Preliminary results from independent investigation The federation said in late April that an investigation into match-fixing in fencing found “no evidence that individual U.S. fencers were actively involved in fixing their own matches.”

Ms Nazlimov did not respond to a request for comment. But her mother, Wang Zheng, wrote in an email, “Tatiana is absolutely innocent and the accusations of cheating/manipulating matches are ridiculous.”

The latest flashpoint came in early January, when Nazremov competed in the North American Cup in San Jose, California.

With the score tied at 12-12, Mr. Romo began asking Mr. Morales for his opinion before rating either fencer, which Mr. Morales acknowledged by hand gestures, according to the U.S. Fencing disciplinary panel. respond. This exchange violates the rules of fencing.

Howard Jacobs, a California attorney representing Mr. Morales, the more experienced referee, said his client was merely confirming the decision that the less experienced Mr. Romo planned to make and was not influenced by their communications. Change any decision. Mr. Romo reportedly said he was simply seeking confirmation that he intended to make the call.

A Video posted online Signals shown to have been sent by Mr Morales also showed Ms Nazlimov’s coach sitting near and talking to Mr Morales at some point during the game. USA Fencing said neither referee disputed the video.

Jacobs said that according to testimony at the hearing, coach Fikrat Valiyev asked Mr. Morales who Mr. Romo was and another question unrelated to the game, but the two did not discuss any of the calls. . Ms. Nazlimov narrowly won the match 15-14.

Andrews, CEO of the US Fencing Association, said there was “no evidence that Tatiana herself was at fault” in the referee dispute.

Ms Nazremov is a member of one of the most famous families in fencing. Her grandfather, Vladimir Nazremov, won three Olympic gold medals in the team saber competition on behalf of the former Soviet Union, and her father, Vitaly Nazremov, is a former NCAA individual champion.

Her coach, Mr. Valiev, is a two-time Olympic fencer from Azerbaijan, but he also embodies the complex relationships that exist in elite fencing. In addition to being the head coach of the Lady Nazlimovs, he also works at the Nazlimov Family Fencing Academy in Maryland and serves as an international referee at the Olympic level.

Nazlimov’s mother, Ms. Wang, said in an email that her daughter was in a “doctored” video released in January by U.S. coach and former elite fencer Andrew Fischl. Unfairly accused.

Mr. Fischer, a frequent post on fencing videosaid he obtained two original videos of the January game and zoomed in on the game but did not change the sequence of any actions, distort any events or make any accusations. “I just showed what happened and I thought it was strange and inappropriate,” Mr Fischer said.

Valiev has not been accused of any wrongdoing and said in an email that he never attempted to fix the match. But in other videos posted online, he is credited with being a coach and referee at the same events, as well as being an Uzbek fencer while Vladimir Nazremov was coaching the Uzbekistan national team or Uzbekistan’s individual athletes. referees were scrutinized because the videos may have presented a conflict of interest.

In a reply to Vitaly Nazlimov’s email, Valiyev said he acted within the rules. But both coaches admit that “the world of fencing is small and conflict is everywhere.”

Eli Dershwitz, 28, the 2023 world saber champion of the United States, said that while violations in fencing “always” exist, he believes in the integrity of the sport and his Olympic teammates. “If I thought a clear mistake had been made, I would have said something,” Mr. Dershwitz said.

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