The gossip swirled through the fencing hall. Olga Cherniak, a Ukrainian-born U.S. fencer, says some Ukrainian fencers told her that Garina had been asked to go into the tank. Later, No. 1 American épée fencer Leslie Marx, using Cherniak as a translator, asked Garina for her story. Marx says Garina pointed out a man who she said offered her money to throw the bout. The man was later identified as Gabriel Nielaba, a Polish coach whom Cheris's personal coach, Janusz Peciak, acknowledges as a friend but with whom he disavows any association in connection with this allegation. In a letter to the USFA, Nielaba denied having ever offered a bribe. Garina, in a telephone interview in late June from Kiev, said, "Someone came up to me and offered me $500 to lose the bout to Elaine Cheris. I refused."
Marx wrote to the USFA shortly after the Garina-Cheris match, detailing the allegations. "It makes you want to throw up, thinking there's a possibility of American involvement in anything like that," she says. "It makes you sad. Or angry."
The USFA asked FIE vice president Chaba Pallaghy to investigate, although Pallaghy says, "The word investigation is a little strong." Pallaghy says he made inquiries of "a private nature," speaking to five or six "people who would know what's going on internationally. These people had not heard anything. It seems Garina was sort of embarrassed to lose to a 50-year-old lady. The whole thing is based on rumor as far as we're concerned." The USFA never asked Pallaghy to write a report; he passed on his findings in a teleconference.
But some unconvinced U.S. coaches and fencers wanted something in black and white. Two American coaches had a lawyer draft a statement alleging a bribe, which was presented to Garina. She declined to sign it. But a U.S. coach from the former Soviet Union has a second letter affirming the bribe attempt, one that Garina says she wrote and signed. He won't release the letter, however, until he receives a $5,000 "indemnification" payment, which he says he will pass on to Garina and her father. "If this story were to come out of Ukraine, it would close off international competition to her," the coach says. "Her father wants to protect her by buying a small apartment, by sending her to college."
But the Americans interested in pursuing the allegations will not pay. "That would have amounted to paying for evidence," says Eric Rosenberg, coach of Sharon Monplaisir, who failed to earn one of the three women's Olympic épée spots. "That would be like bribing a statement out of her."
Sam Cheris, Elaine's husband and the outgoing chairman of the USFA international committee, says the only green involved in this mess is envy. Sam says some fencers and their coaches are carrying on a vendetta against Elaine, a 1988 Olympian in foil who returned to competition this season after shoulder surgery. "There is a vicious group of girls who will say anything to get Elaine off the team," says Sam, a Denver lawyer. "They say, 'She's an old lady. She doesn't belong.' "
Said George Kolombatovich, chairman of the USFA officials commission, "I know all the fencers, and I can tell you that they didn't band together in any sort of conspiracy."
Even before the current controversy, the Cherises were far from popular. When Nhi Lan Le, the No. 3 American woman épée fencer, asked to borrow a spare blade at a tournament in Katowice, Poland, Le says Elaine told her, "Sorry, even if you were my mother, the answer is no." Le borrowed the blade from a Spanish fencer. At a World Cup meet in Luxembourg a month after Tauberbischofsheim, Elaine plopped her fencing bag down next to her teammates. Two of them picked up their bags and moved. When Le shared a suite with Elaine at a South Carolina training camp before the Olympics, she says she did not exchange a word with her roommate. But she says the allegations are not based on personal dislike. "This is definitely not a plot," says Le. "This is not something where we're out to get her."
Cheris, Le and Marx, Olympic teammates by pass-port if not in spirit, all fenced Sunday and no, they did not turn their blades on each other. Cheris rallied to tie a former world champion from Italy named Laura Chiesa in the final minute of their first-round épée bout, but then she made a mad, headlong rush and was touched on her shoulder, a mistake of youthful impetuousness from a woman who has lived half a century. In the stands the Cherises' son, Zachariah, a seven-year-old with rain clouds for eyes, buried his head in his hands, a mirror image of his doleful mother, who sat on the fencing strip and wondered how two years of her life could be undone in three seconds by a tactical error that left her a 15-13 loser. Her bout had ended, but the controversy that has dogged her for four months lingers. Moments after she had fenced, her little boy handed her a red rose; later, Elaine Cheris said, "He told me, 'I still love you, even though you lost.' "