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
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.
"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
A similar oversight occurred with the association's High Performance Committee, which oversees the way national teams are selected.
In June 2005
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
At a board meeting during the 2007 summer nationals in Miami,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.