When the oldest Olympian on the U.S. team walked to her fencing strip early Sunday morning in the Georgia World Congress Center, she should have been hailed as an American heroine, a living monument to determination. Instead, 50-year-old Elaine Cheris found herself at the center of a murky story about an alleged bribe, a tale that has pitted American versus American in a hissing contest involving lawyers, swords and money.
In March the U.S. Fencing Association (USFA) received allegations that a young Ukrainian fencer was offered $500 to throw a World Cup bout against Cheris earlier that month. "That's absolutely ridiculous," Cheris said Sunday. "That is a total fabrication." And although the USFA looked into the allegations and also dismissed them, several U.S. coaches and athletes remain unconvinced.
Fencing, which has been part of the Olympics since the modern Games began 100 years ago, projects an aristocratic image: It likes to be seen as a contest of courtly gentlemen (and gentlewomen) wielding swords to defend their honor. But the reality of elite-level fencing, according to numerous athletes, coaches and officials, is far less noble. Beneath the surface lies a world rife with fixed bouts and traded favors, a bazaar in which, if you know where to look, you can find a bargain.
"World Cup bouts are for sale, and an unscrupulous few go that route," says Don Lane, elite coordinator of the Canadian Fencing Federation. "Fencers have shopped for a match: 'Who wants to beat me?' That money will allow a fencer to buy equipment or go to a few more meets."
"Think about the most dishonest sport you know," says Paul Soter, the U.S. women's épée coach. "Boxing? Boxing and fencing is not an unfair analogy. The best fencing in the world is in a half dozen European countries. It's their game. They cut their own deals, conduct themselves the way 'gentlemen's' clubs did. They divvy up the spoils in their sport as the robber barons of the late 19th century divvied up their industries. It's amazing not that the thuggery goes on, but that people come up who aren't corrupted."
Lev Rossochik, deputy managing editor of the Russian sports newspaper Sport Ekspress, would agree with that assessment. "For as long as I have known, throwing of bouts has been going on in fencing," says Rossochik, who has covered the sport for 30 years. "But it never involved money, at least not in the old days. It was understood by competitors. Let's say I am a Russian fencer and you are a French fencer. If the European championships are in Paris, I lose to you. Then the next year when the world championships are in Moscow and it is a crucial match for me, you lose to me. That's the way it was."
"Every sport," says Carl Schwende, a member of the executive board of the International Fencing Federation (FIE), "has its dark corners." In fencing the chicanery hasn't been restricted to major meets and powerhouse matchups. In 1991 Canadian fencer Maureen Griffin says she was approached at one of the final selection tournaments for the world championships and told that if she threw a bout, her meet expenses would be covered. Considering the costs of training, equipment, coaching and travel, a fencer might spend $25,000 a year to make a world championship or Olympic team. An athlete might feel that spending a few hundred dollars to bribe an opponent could protect a considerable investment.
Rule changes in 1993—when FIE axed round-robin pools and loser's brackets from tournament formats in favor of single elimination—were designed to remove the quid pro quos in the sport and thus cut down on cheating. While most athletes and coaches in the fencing community agree that the new rules have helped, one 10-year World Cup veteran fencer suggests dirty tricks still occur at every World Cup meet in an Olympic year. Renata Grodecka, a Polish-born Canadian fencer, says that five minutes before a bout in Europe this spring she was approached and asked if she would sell a bout. "I was so shocked I didn't even ask the price," says Grodecka, who didn't qualify for Atlanta. "Pity. I would have been curious to know what these things cost now." When asked why she didn't report the offer (deal making is supposed to lead to expulsion from a meet) Grodecka says, "There was no proof. No one else heard it."
Grodecka knew what the going rate for a dirty bout was in 1990—1,000 German marks ($515)—or at least that is what Grodecka says a friend told her she was offered at a meet in Tauberbischofsheim, in what was then West Germany. Grodecka, then fencing for Poland, says that she was also approached about the same time, also in Tauberbischofsheim, by a coach wanting to buy a bout for his fencer; she says she declined—and again never spoke to authorities about the offer.
Then there is the sticky matter of the Cheris allegations. On March 17, Cheris defeated 18-year-old Anna Garina of Ukraine 15-11 in the round of 64 at Tauberbischofsheim. (Fencers who reach the round of 32 earn World Cup points, part of the USFA formula for selecting Olympians.) The result was only a minor upset—Cheris beat Garina again seven weeks later in Budapest—but the desultory manner in which Garina fenced early in the bout raised at least a few eyebrows. According to one U.S. coach, a German coach approached him and, implying that the bout appeared to have been fixed, asked, "Why do you want Elaine on your team?" Garina has said she fenced poorly because she was upset by the bribe attempt.