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 epee 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
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.
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 epee 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
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 epee 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 epee 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 passport 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 epee 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.'"