Fencing Rattled by Suspensions and Accusations Ahead of Olympics

Fencing is a niche but fundamental sport in the Olympics, contested at every Summer Games since 1896. Yet despite its genteel reputation and simple objective — touch an opponent with your blade before being touched — the sport has long been rife with drama and suspicion.

Two months before the Paris Olympics, international saber fencing is engulfed by questions about the integrity of refereeing, accusations of preferential treatment and concerns among top athletes and coaches that their sport’s tangled connections may be helping 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 acknowledged communicating with each other during an Olympic qualifying tournament in California. It grew so concerned about two other referees that it asked the sport’s global governing body to ensure that those two judges were no longer assigned to any matches involving Americans.

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

“Part of me feels so foolish for 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 the 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 referees who parse the complicated rules of attack during each match and decide if a point, or touch, is valid. Those rules bring an element of subjectivity to the scoring, and saber fencing, one of the sport’s three disciplines along with épée and foil, can be particularly challenging because its athletes lunge explosively at one another and deliver touches nearly 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 was being done to address saber fencing’s problems.

The referees who were suspended last month by USA Fencing, Jacobo Morales and Brandon Romo, have been barred from judging matches in 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 match in January involving a top American saber fencer, Tatiana Nazlymov, 19, at an Olympic qualifying tournament.

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

They were not the only referees, though, who had drawn the attention of the American federation. Months earlier, Phil Andrews, the chief executive of USA Fencing, had written with alarm to the sport’s global governing body, the International Fencing Federation, to express concern that there was “likely to be improper officiating” of bouts involving Ms. Nazlymov and another leading American saber fencer, Mitchell Saron.

In its letter, which was sent on Dec. 3 and reviewed by The Times, USA Fencing said it was primarily concerned with two referees, Vasil Milenchev of Bulgaria and Yevgeniy Dyaokokin of Kazakhstan. Video evidence, the letter said, indicated that calls made by those referees in bouts involving Mr. Saron and Ms. Nazlymov showed “a likely favoritism” toward them.

As a result, USA Fencing requested that Mr. Milenchev and Mr. Dyaokokin no longer be assigned to bouts involving any American fencers. Mr. Andrews said he understood that the International Fencing Federation responded to the letter with an investigation but was unaware 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 second letter written by USA Fencing that was sent to Ms. Nazlymov and Mr. Saron on Dec. 18 and also reviewed by The Times, Mr. Andrews told the athletes that the federation was aware that “potential preferential officiating treatment” was benefiting their performances in international competitions, and warned them that they could be stripped of some points they had accumulated toward Olympic qualification if “strong evidence” of match manipulation emerged.

Ms. Nazlymov and Mr. Saron have since been named to the U.S. team for the Paris Olympics. And by March, USA Fencing’s concerns seemed to have eased. Mr. Saron acknowledged through a spokesman that on March 6 he had received a text message, which was reviewed by The Times, from a federation official saying that he was not a cause for concern.

Mr. Andrews said in an interview that there was no evidence that either fencer knew of or knowingly took advantage of improper refereeing. And preliminary results from an independent investigation into match manipulation in saber fencing found “no evidence that individual U.S. fencers were actively involved in manipulating their own bouts,” 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 cheating/matchfixing accusation is ridiculous.”

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

According to a USA Fencing disciplinary panel, with the score tied at 12-12, Mr. Romo began to seek input from Mr. Morales before awarding points to either fencer, and Mr. Morales acknowledged responding via hand gestures. Such communication is a violation of fencing’s rules.

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

A video posted online that showed Mr. Morales signaling also showed Ms. Nazlymov’s coach sitting near and talking to Mr. Morales at some point during the match. 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 bout, but the two did not discuss any calls, Mr. Jacobs said. Ms. Nazlymov narrowly won the match, 15-14.

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

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

Her coach, Mr. 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 unfairly accused in what she described as a “doctored” video posted in January by Andrew Fischl, an American coach and former elite saber fencer.

Mr. Fischl, who regularly posts fencing videos, said he obtained two pieces of raw video from the January match and zoomed in on the bout but did not change the order of any action, distort any occurrence or make any accusations. “I just showed what happened and was like, this is weird and inappropriate,” Mr. Fischl said.

Mr. Valiyev has not been accused of any impropriety and said in an email that he had never tried to manipulate matches. But he has come under scrutiny in other videos posted online for possible conflicts of interest by coaching and refereeing at the same competition, and by refereeing matches involving Uzbek fencers while Vladimir Nazlymov was coaching Uzbekistan’s national team or individual Uzbek athletes.

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

Eli Dershwitz, 28, the 2023 world saber champion from the United States, said that while irregularities occurred in fencing “all the time,” he believed in the integrity of the sport and his Olympic teammates. “If I thought there was something blatantly wrong going on, I would say something,” Mr. Dershwitz said.