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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The Current Controversy in Saber Fencing

The fencing community is abuzz with commentary about the legitimacy of international competitions.
Pictured is Áron Szilágyi (at left) against Nikolay Kovalev (at right) during the Semi-Finals for the 2013 Budapest World Fencing Championship. (Photo Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

Disclaimer: This article does not accuse any athlete or referee of malpractice, nor does it criticize anyone’s character. The purpose of this article is to raise healthy suspicion and to compile information for the public for educational purposes. 

Fencing as a sport has evolved over centuries. The niche activity has grown in popularity over the years, from making its Olympic debut in 1896 with only 2 styles and 4 nations participating, to becoming what it is today. The distinctions are most obvious when looking at how the Olympics in the past used to ban women and even one of the three fencing styles from the event, to today, when some of the most skilled fencers in all weapons are women and all three fencing blades (foil, épée and sabre) used in Olympic fencing.

The sphere of high-level competitive fencing has also grown alongside the rest of the sport. However, in recent years, the integrity of the international competitive saber world has been challenged

Bout manipulation, or referee bias has been a topic in fencing for nearly as long as the rules have been established. The entire scoring system of the sport relies on the ability of the referee to correctly interpret the rules and award points correctly. Of course, this spawns a lot of room for error, as actions may happen in a matter of milliseconds. On many occasions, the referee cannot rely on a replay and must make a call simply based on what they saw. 

Fencers of all different levels will tell you about their experiences with unfair calls and incorrect losses because of the subjective nature of refereeing that will never be resolved. But recently, this issue has stepped out of the shadows. It is no longer a discussion of mistakes from personal experiences and bitter anecdotes, but seemingly deliberate action that has caught the attention of most fencers, independent of personal involvement.

Andrew Fischl, better known as CyrusofChaos in the fencing world, a retired international saber fencer and current coach and referee, provided his own input on the situation during an exclusive interview with me for The Science Survey. He said, “The first time I ever heard about any sort of bout manipulation, I lost a match at a world cup, and the other fencers told me I got screwed over. It didn’t really feel like that, but watching the bout back afterwards, there were maybe 3 or 4 contestable calls in favor of the other fencer.”

“This was my first international senior world cup, and I was told by the people that I was competing with that these things just happen — this coming from someone who is from a lesser respected country, which the USA was at the time in the fencing world. You can always expect people to be biased against you.” 

This is just the reality of fencing for most people, being told that there’s nothing you can really do; the referee makes the call. But there is a certain point where it becomes undeniable that the decision crosses the line from misinterpretation or personal bias into true corruption. 

The first widespread red flag came in April 2016, in the quarterfinal round of the men’s saber European Olympic qualifying tournament between James Honeybone of Great Britain and Pancho Paskov of Bulgaria. The calls made by the referee appeared to be extremely in favor of Paskov. Honeybone had argued against many touches that had been awarded to Paskov, and when reviewed, many people agreed with him. 

An anonymous user, “ponce de león fencing,” (PDLF) on YouTube who claims to be a retired Olympic fencer, posted a nearly 50 minute long video on January 5th, 2024 entitled ‘Fencing’s Biggest Open Secret,’ which has now amassed over 38 thousand views. This, as the title implies, serves as an exposé for the entire current controversy. The compilation of recordings, pictures, rules, and narration combine together to create a well arranged portfolio of all the accusations and lines of logic.

In the video, the evidence of the allegations are introduced using the Paskov versus Honeybone match. One of the first things that she comments on is the connection between Vasil Milenchev, and the referee of the bout Marius Florea. Milenchev himself is a world renowned referee, and a close friend of Florea’s, who is also called out in this video for being a repeat supporter of Bulgarian fencers. Several controversial touches are highlighted with the active strip recording accompanied by the call made in text in the top left.

The next point on the timeline for most people is more of its own individual sequence of events.

Yousef Alshamlan is a Kuwaiti saber fencer who is currently qualified and preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics. However, his credentials are by far the most contested in recent years. For most, his name is linked to the essence of the issue at hand. 

Slicer Sabre, another of the most popular online sources for fencing media, has even gone so far as to say “Yousef Alshamlan is possibly the most hated fencer in the world right now” in his video about the fencer. Although the sentiment may come off as harsh, it rightfully expresses how many feel people at the moment. Comments within the same video reflect this notion with viewers making statements such as “Corruption that infects sports is so saddening,” and “Shame on Yousuf Alshamlan and everyone involved. Everyone say his name for what he is, a cheater, not a true Olympian.” 

No formal allegations have been posted against Alshamlan, but in terms of public opinion, the statement “most hated” feels accurate. 

However, the claims are not unfounded. The public has found Alshamlan’s performance in comparison to the verdict lacking. Fischl summarized what he had heard, saying “…there was a very famous bout, where it seemed like Alshamlan was getting a lot of help against a French fencer named Anstett. [This occurred during] the last tournament that he could possibly qualify for the Olympics at.”

PDLF also commented on Alshamlan, first mentioning the Budapest World Cup Anstett versus Alshamlan bout as well. The qualification for that tournament was between Yoshida Kento and Yousef Alshamlan. Kento had been knocked out, but based on FIE points, Alshamlan would need to reach the top 16 fencers in the tournament to qualify for the Olympics. 

She begins with text over a black screen alongside a voiceover that said, “Our story for the next fencer on the list begins during the later qualification stages for the 2020 Olympics. Around this time Italian FIE [Fédération Internationale d’Escrime/International Fencing Federation] referee Marco Siesto retired from international refereeing and began coaching a fencer in Kuwait named Yousef Alshamlan… It quickly became clear that Siesto was using his connections to place refs on Alshamlan’s fights who could help him accumulate the points he would need to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.”

She begins playing clips where Siesto was speaking to the referee before the match and even during the match. The music in the background is loud, but over it, you can hear Siesto say something along the lines of, “It’s very important, for us. For him nothing changes in individual because in individual for Apithy…” before Siesto’s voice falls unintelligible over the music. 

It is explained that the conversation centered on how Anstett could not qualify for the Olympics because his fellow French fencer Bolade Apithy was ahead of him. Even during the bout, there were excessive negative reactions from Siesto, repeatedly shouting “No” when the referee would make calls against Alshamlan. And although Anstett did win the bout, the calls made in Alshamlan’s favor are still very much called into question.

Although these events seem to be rare, isolated cases within Eurasia, both the issues regarding refereeing and competing fencers are relevant to the United States as well. The latter has become a hot topic within fencing communities, with speculation about the merit of certain fencers representing the U.S. nationally spreading rapidly. 

The first fencer whom people took notice of was Mitchell Saron. (Not to say that Saron isn’t an amazing fencer.) The Harvard graduate’s ability has been honed for a long time, and it shows from his run on the NCAA circuit. However, in terms of international competition, he has been called into question after both an increase in Milenchev refereeing his bouts but also a change in his results in poules with Milenchev.

Saron had attended 14 FIE events in the Senior category prior to the 2020-2021 season. He had consistently been winning around half of his poule bouts. 

For reference, the average poule is of six to seven people, and each fences five to six matches against each other. There are two types of matches that are typically played in tournaments, poule bouts, which are first to five touches, and direct elimination also known as DE bouts, which are first to fifteen touches within three periods of three minutes each with one minute breaks in between. Within these two categories, skill level is often consolidated, with poule strength and DE strength being considered separate and fairly consistent over time. Sudden jumps in skill are particularly uncommon.

Considering that, it has been noted that in bouts that Saron was being refereed by Milenchev, his poule record was almost immaculate, jumping from winning about half of his bouts to all of them. 

PDLF recognizes this in her video. She states “+25, +27, and +24 with Milenchev reffing him. At the time of the making of this video, Saron has never lost a poule fight with Milenchev reffing him and his average indicator is +25.33. Without Milenchev his average number of poule victories is 3.5 and his average indicator is +1.83.” 

The “indicator” she speaks of is a figure used to determine seedings out of poules into DE alongside win/loss ratio, it is derived by taking the number of touches he gets awarded and removing the number of touches his opponents got on him. +25.33 is an unreal average indicator to have at such a high level, and considering his sudden rise from +1.83 to +25.33, it is definitely worthy of suspicion. 

On top of that, Milenchev has not only been involved in an increase in his performance, but has also been refereeing his matches more often.  Over Madrid 2023, World Championships 2023, and Budapest 2023, Milenchev had refereed five of Saron’s DEs. 

According to rule t.50 of the FIE rulebook, “For the rounds of poules and the direct elimination table, the Refereeing Delegates select the referees by drawing lots… For the direct elimination tables at each weapon, the Refereeing Delegates establish, among the referees present, a list of the best referees at each weapon (according to the grades obtained during the season). For each quarter of the table, 4 referees are assigned by drawing lots from among at least of 4 to 5 referees, to referee the bouts in the order of the table, if possible. They must be of a different nationality from that of any of the fencers participating in that quarter of the table.”

Since the way that referees are selected is supposedly random and done by drawing lots, it only bolsters the suspicion surrounding the way Milenchev referees Saron on more than one occasion, in both poules and also DEs. 

It was pointed out to me that this one particular referee, Vasil Milenchev, was refereeing him a lot. At that tournament, Milenchev was refereeing him again, two more times and he was doing phenomenally well whenever those situations happened. 

Even besides the angry crowds gathering online, this issue has become something to be concerned about for the general fencing community. The integrity of the sport has been compromised, and it is only amplified for everyone involved. Not “involved,” as in the subject of scandal, but new faces who might be trying their best within the sport, or someone who has been fencing for a long time and feels discouraged by rumors of people using money to get ahead or referee bias causing unjustified losses. The current state of the sport isn’t helping anyone feel supported in beginning or advancing their career. 

The idea that even if you were to reach the Olympic level, there’s a chance that someone may be cheating and there’s the chance that there may be that disparity come the moment it is time for the payoff is no doubt discouraging to people at all levels. 

It goes without saying that a sport even hypothetically ridden with cheating doesn’t attract any new people, despite how much larger organizations ignore it. And despite the way that many people see it, the official verdict is still up in the air as to whether or not what the people are saying is true, and a decision is not in sight. 

During the section on Paskov and Honeybone in PDLF’s video, after watching clips of the actual bout, the narration continues with text on the screen reading, “According to my friends who are still active on the circuit, when Milenchev is not refereeings he will often observe fights featuring Bulgarian fencers from a position where he can  be easily seen by the referee. While this behavior isn’t illegal it is perceived by other coaches as a form of intimidation. For this reason (with the exception of the Paskov incident) we can call what happens with Bulgarian fencers more of a strong bias than any foul play and this is the least egregious of the potential issues…” 

This type of action is what would allow things of this order to continue occurring. No foul play can be proved by simply the presence of someone else during a match.

The problem does not just lie in not being able to prove unsavory involvement of the referees; the organizations in charge of investigating are outright ignoring the issue. The FIE and USFA have launched investigations into every other allegation, but refuse to open investigations on any cheating allegations, despite the public’s consistent requests. However, the USFA has proven that even if they investigate, the punishments are barely appropriate for the offense. 

During the January North American Cup (NAC) in Division I Women’s Saber, there was a bout between Tatiana Nazlymov and Kira Erikson, in which Nazlymov won 15-14. The rule for the tournament was that those who are contending for the Olympics were to be refereed by FIE certified referees. However, Jacobo Morales, who was initially supposed to be the referee, did not do so, and instead, Brandon Romo, who is not FIE licensed, did. 

However, during the bout, Morales was present as a spectator, and was seemingly directing Romo on what calls to make, which is against both USFA and FIE rules. In the article by USA Fencing, the hearing panel reported: “The Panel finds that Morales violated Rules t.100 and t.109, as well as the above-referenced sections of the FIE Ethical Code, by providing input to Romo during the Erickson/Nazlymov bout. The Panel similarly finds that Romo violated the same Rules and sections of the Ethical Code by asking for input from Morales.”

Despite making it very clear that the referees were violating several rules, the punishment distributed seems disproportionate. The individual punishments only apply for nine months, and while Morales  is unable to referee any USFA tournament for that period, Romo  is still permitted to referee local and regional events, only excluding national. The paired punishment is that they are not allowed to referee the same referee strip for 5 years, and “are recommended not to be assigned to the same pod” for that period of time. 

Considering that they have been found formally guilty of breaking a number of rules, many consider it barely a slap on the wrist to only restrict them individually for nine months. To many, it seems as if the punishment is not nearly great enough to disincentivize from breaking the rules further. By making this decision, the USFA is actively contradicting the point of punishment and opens everything more to real cheating. 

Regarding the series of events discussed, Fischl commented, “All those things together just kind of make you raise your eyebrows, and once you start noticing things, it’s hard to un-notice them going forward.” 

His words very much reflect the situation at hand. It is unclear whether or not foul play is present. However, when details and a conclusion are presented, it’s difficult to keep it out of mind while analyzing future events. 

Even so, putting aside the possible repercussions of controversial fencers winning events like the Olympics coming up, it is of urgent need for the FIE and USFA to communicate with the public and take necessary action to address the allegations, not only to clear their name and those involved, but to ease the community that allows fencing to exist.

Fencers of all different levels will tell you about their experiences with unfair calls and incorrect losses because of the subjective nature of refereeing that will never be resolved. But recently, this issue has stepped out of the shadows.

About the Contributor
Madison Kang, Staff Reporter
Madison Kang is a Sports Editor for ‘The Science Survey.' She is drawn to journalistic writing because of the variety of ways that can be used to tell both direct and underlying narratives within an article. Madison also pursues photography as a hobby with a similar perspective, in terms of photography. Madison enjoys reading, painting, and journaling in her free time, and her favorite type of books are the classics. Instead of seeing journalism and photography as possible career paths for herself, she rather sees them as a form of expression, and each new article and photo as a unique experience. In the future, Madison would like to pursue a career in neuroscience and psychology, while continuing photography and writing as a hobby.