Wednesday June 25th, 2008

Dwindling funds? Leadership in hiding? Unpaid athletes and coaches? Phantom appointments? What is going on with the U.S. Fencing Association? In order to address the growing problems in the sport, the U.S. Olympic Committee will announce on Wednesday that it will begin overseeing certain operating aspects of the U.S. Fencing Association, which is in operational and financial freefall after its most successful Olympics four years ago.

Last Friday members of the Olympic fencing team were told that that the USOC will bypass the federation and pay funding directly to athletes, many of whom, like several high level coaches and referees, have not been paid money owed them since the last Olympics. Though it operates on a budget with less than $4 million in revenues, the association operated at a $1 million loss during its most recent year.

As part of a comprehensive review of the way many national governing bodies under the Olympic umbrella conduct business, the USOC decertified the existing body for team handball in 2006 and replaced it with a new one in April. It did the same for modern pentathlon and has overseen reorganized structures for boxing and taekwondo federations that were operating poorly. Even USA Track & Field, a heavyweight among U.S. sports governing bodies, is under scrutiny as it attempts to find a new CEO. Yet some of those squads, especially team handball, have a history of poor results. The team handball squads have not qualified for the Games since 1992. (The team was granted a home-country exemption at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics).

Fencing, however, was an unqualified success story in Athens. It had been a century since a U.S. fencer had won an Olympic gold medal, before Mariel Zagunis captured the women's sabre crown in Athens, with Sada Jacobsen adding a bronze. Though the men failed to win a medal in Athens, the sabre team seemed primed for future honors after losing matches by identical 45-44 scores to France in the semifinals and Russia in the bronze-medal contest. The men's foil team also placed a respectable fourth. NBC actually sprinkled coverage of the sport into its traditional menu of swimming, track and gymnastics. The women's sabre team backed up that performance by winning a gold medal in the team competition at the 2005 world championships. It looked like U.S. fencing was headed for a boom cycle of publicity and financial prosperity.

The USFA's Web site should have been inundated with more hits than, well, a novice fencer, except that the site was down for six weeks after the Games. The team's top fencers, many of whom chose to stay with the sport, could have been reaping the rewards, except that USFA didn't pay much of the money that was owed them.

Michael Massik, the association's executive director, and Nancy Anderson, appointed president of the association in 2004, should have been welcome sounding boards for ways to grow the sport and the federation in an unprecedented era of opportunity and expansion. Instead many members complained that Massik and Anderson shut off communications and wouldn't respond to calls or emails, especially when it came to money matters.

"Anderson simply went AWOL from her vice presidents and her executive committee," said one Olympic team member. "When people told her they'd been trying to reach her, she'd say her computer crashed or she'd been out of town or she wasn't feeling well. The only time you could get Massik to respond to emails was copy someone else on them."

Anderson did send out a group email on Jan. 4, 2005, in which she stated: "There are times when we all need to keep a little perspective on life and, as we all face 2005, this seems like a good time." The memo included 22 pictures of playful kittens with captions that read, in part: "2004 has sped by; now, we need to face 2005." It ended with a photo of one kitten cleaning another with the caption: "And, most importantly, never forget to love those dearest to you."

In early 2006 Mike Morgan, the apparent chair of the USFA's fundraising committee, started receiving inquiries about his committee's efforts. The problem was that no one had told him he was running the committee. Morgan's letter to USFA's board of directors read as follows:

To: USFA Board of Directors

From: Mike Morgan

Re: Fundraising Committee

I am writing in response to a request from the National Office to submit a report by January 15th, 2006, on the actions of the above referenced committee. I surreptitiously "discovered" my appointment and designation as Chair on January 10th, 2006. Prior to that, I was never officially consulted and received no specific communication regarding my participation in this or any capacity from the President, USFA Officers, Executive Director, staff liaison or other committee members. Consequently, I have no knowledge of actions taken or planned (if any) by this Committee.

Since I never officially accepted this appointment, it is unnecessary to submit a formal resignation. For the record, I am not currently, nor do I anticipate working with this group.

I have served as a development, fund-raising and marketing consultant for 38 years. With respect to my appointment, this administration's conduct may be characterized as both negligent and disconnected. In a sector that I consider as the bedrock of every non-profit organization, this is an inexcusable failure in adhering to reasonable professional standards

Mike Morgan

A similar oversight occurred with the association's High Performance Committee, which oversees the way national teams are selected. Jane Carter had been appointed as head the committee, but was not told of her appointment until just before a meeting eight months into her term.

In June 2005 Yuri Gelman, the men's national sabre coach, sent a letter to Massik, Anderson, USFA vice president Sam Cheris and Carter, asking why his repeated inquiries about athlete support were never answered. "When the USFA President and the Executive Director fail to respond to or cooperate with coaches and athletes," Gelman wrote in the letter, "it creates a confrontational environment characterized by mistrust and frustration."

In November 2005 several members circulated a petition threatening a recall of Anderson's presidency and requesting her resignation. That letter read in part: "The organization has not been run in a business-like manner, and the best interests of U.S. Fencing have not been served. Your administration has been detrimental to the advance of the organization, especially following two milestones: two Olympic medals, and a 2005 World Championship Gold Medal. The time has come for a change in USFA leadership, and we respectfully ask that you do the right thing and resign gracefully."

The letter was signed by 10 Olympic fencers, the national coaches for men's and women's sabre and men's and women foil and several influential coaches around the country. Anderson declined to resign. Soon after word surfaced among the fencing community about the recall petition, former presidents Steve Sobel and Stacey Johnson circulated a memo warning that recall could prompt the USOC to decertify USFA and cut off funding to the association. That stalled the recall drive. Anderson is still in office and her term will end after the Beijing Olympics.

At a board meeting during the 2007 summer nationals in Miami, Derek Cotton, USFA's treasurer, made a motion to accept the budget of the executive director. Stunned members objected, noting that Massik had not actually put forth a budget report. Massik then explained that he could not put such a report forward because, in his words, the situation was fluid and money was moving in and out too rapidly to issue a report. Sam Cheris, an attorney and USFA vice president, objected to Massik's explanation, saying that any organization, especially a non-profit such as USFA, needed to have a budget plan available with specifics. Then the motion was withdrawn.

The federation should be swimming in newfound riches, or at least solvency. Instead it posted a million-dollar loss last year that has its rank-and-file members wondering what went on behind closed doors. In February 2008 the USFA's annual financial statement for Colorado Charitable Organizations listed the federation's total assets for the fiscal year Aug. 1, 2006, to July 31, 2007, as $816,490 and liabilities as $1,797,365, a net loss of $980,875. It listed total revenues as $3,869,728 and total expenses as $5,002,866, including $4,646,938 listed under program services. Massik revealed the numbers in February 2008, attributing the spiraling losses to bookkeeping errors made by a former clerical employee and verbally pledged his resignation effective sometime after the 2008 Olympics, without specifying a date.

Carl Borack, a four-time Olympic team captain, says that isn't enough. "Massik ought to be fired," Borack says. "There is tendency at the USOC to protect staff. I don't want to protect staff. Heads should roll. This is going to have an impact on the next quad [four-year cycle of Olympic preparation]. I'm worried for our kids in the next quad. We have no funds right now."

The lack of funding has impacted the team's top athletes and coaches, many of whom did not know until the 11th hour whether they would be assigned to certain competitions or compensated for expenses if they attended. After her Olympic success in Athens, Zagunis was a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the world championships in Leipzig in 2005. For her performances the USFA owed her $25,000, which, as a college-eligible athlete at Notre Dame, she could put into an escrow fund until after she either graduated or gave up her eligibility. In 2007 Cathy Zagunis, Mariel's mother, says Mariel sent two certified letters and three emails to Massik, asking for clarification about the money, but received no response. Finally in January 2008 Cathy approached Massik directly after a meeting in Atlanta, where he told her he had sent a letter detailing a repayment plan. Zagunis told him she had not received it. A month later Zagunis cornered Massik again in Charlotte. "He told me he had the letter with him in his briefcase, because he didn't trust it to the mail, but actually it wasn't in his briefcase; it was upstairs in his room and he would go get it," said Zagunis. "He still hasn't provided the letter."

According to Cathy Zagunis, Mariel is still owed $10,000-12,000 on top of the original $25,000. USFA also owes money to other athletes. In May, Olympian Sada Jacobsen, a member of the world team in Leipzig, was paid roughly $14,000 of the $32,000 she was owed; and Rebecca Ward, a Leipzig team member and the 2006 world champion, is owed roughly $6,000. This year, when the top fencers traveled abroad for World Cup events, their hotels were supposed to be paid for by USFA, but when they arrived for a World Cup in Klagenfurt, Germany, Cathy Zagunis put the bill on her credit card, because the association had not left a card number at the hotel. When the group arrived at its hotel for another World Cup event in Ghent, Belgium, the hotel informed them that the card the USFA had left to cover the room had been declined.

Additionally a one-time bequest of $360,000, specifically earmarked in two equal parts for training and preparation for the 2004 and '08 Olympics, was folded into the general budget, contrary to the terms of the gift.

Earlier this season Ed Korfanty, the women's national sabre coach, won a default judgment against the USFA for failure to pay funds owed to him because USFA legal representatives failed to appear in court or contest the issue. Korfanty is finally receiving monthly payments that are roughly one year behind.

Though most of the sources for this story felt that the federation's financial and operating implosion was the result of mismanagement rather than malfeasance, most were mystified as to how the association could have such a significant shortfall. Many were strikingly concerned about speaking up directly, for fear that their standing within the fencing community would be jeopardized. For years the complicity of silence allowed leadership that was increasingly overburdened with responsibilities that went over their heads to remain idle. "When people are afraid to put themselves out there and rock the boat," says one member, "the boat just keeps sinking. That's what happened with us."

Anderson did not respond to SI's email request for an interview. Massik declined and asked that all inquiries be directed to the association's communications consultant.

An intercession from the USOC was inevitable and will be announced on Wednesday. In addition to conducting a widespread independent audit of the USFA and overseeing funding for athletes, the USOC will essentially run the association's high performance group leading up to the Beijing Olympics. Beyond that the committee will make sure a board is in place that will run transparently and be accountable to its membership. "We absolutely want to make sure athletes have the full support they need to reach their potential in Beijing," says USOC spokesperson Darryl Seibel. "Going forward, we will start to identify where changes may need to be made within the organization."

That should be a welcome relief, even for those within fencing who fear the impact that outside interference might have on the community of those who better understand the sport. Still, the flickering light of opportunity that propelled a hot sport such as snowboarding may be gone for fencing. This is a shame. Up close, this sport is dynamic and intense. Up closer, the athletes who contest it are largely bright, modest, well spoken and upstanding. Now it's their burden to parry years of missed opportunities.

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