Former world champion Nikolay Kovalev among coaches signing open letter to US Fencing. GETTY IMAGES

Over 50 members of the American fencing community - including former world sabre champion Nikolay Kovalev - have signed an open letter to the board of US Fencing (also known as USA Fencing) saying athletes have "no confidence" in its investigation of bout manipulation allegations.

At the start of May, members of the national fencing team slammed the national governing body over what they branded "weak and futile" suspensions against two referees found guilty of bout manipulation. Jacobo Morales and Brandon Romo were handed nine-month bans for violating the US Fencing Referee Code of Ethics, International Fencing Federation (FIE) Technical Rules, and the FIE Ethical Code in a sabre contest at the January 2024 North American Cup which doubled as an Olympic qualifying event.

This second investigation, which US Fencing called "a related but separate matter", also concerns allegations of match manipulation in the sabre weapon. Russia's London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Kovalev, who coaches at the West Coast Fencing Academy in Southern California, and Ukraine's former world champion Vladimir Lukashenko - based at the Manhattan Fencing Center - are among the Olympians who want immediate changes to the investigation. Beijing 2008 team silver medallist James Williams and Rio 2016 team bronze medallist Monica Aksamit are also on the list of signatories.

In the letter, the coaches and retired Olympic fencers say, "We are extremely concerned with the process that US Fencing has put in place to investigate allegations of bout manipulation. The athletes we have heard from have no confidence in the current investigation for several reasons:

  1. US Fencing has set up a one-way investigation relying on people who fear retribution to come forward and provide evidence. To our knowledge, the investigation has not followed up on leads and pertinent evidence that have exposed the manipulation. The investigation process has not been transparent in defining the scope, goals, and outcomes, leaving athletes both highly concerned and frustrated.
  2. Athletes and officials are being told that the investigators need people to talk “on the record”. This is concerning as everyone was led to believe that the investigation’s terms of reference would protect whistleblowers, therefore any evidence should be considered on the record with confidently upheld and protected.
  3. The interim investigation suspension of Mr. Jacobo Morales and Mr. Brandon Romo has left the impression that US Fencing is lenient on match-fixing. The suspension of only 9 months for both of these referees, who were found guilty of violating the USA Fencing Referee Code of Ethics, the FIE Technical Rules, and the FIE Ethical Code (International Fencing Federation) for the San Jose NAC on January 6, 2024, is ineffective as both referees continue to direct international FIE bouts and some domestic ones.
  4. US Fencing has determined they will not be reallocating the points acquired from the bout manipulation, where the two referees mentioned above were suspended. If this investigation is to be fair and ethical, points must be reallocated for manipulated matches.
  5. Athletes are aware that evidence exists that discloses money being offered to fix matches, yet they have been told there is not enough proof. Additionally, the undersigned coaches who have testified to the investigation have informed the investigators that cheating has occurred, yet their expert input has been disregarded.
  6. The interim investigation report has not been made public and the current investigation process, as stated above, has not been transparent, leaving many athletes confused and betrayed. 

It continues, "Sadly, everyone in the fencing community knows about the match manipulation happening in our sport. US Fencing is just as aware of this ‘open secret’ as the rest of the community, yet they refuse to act responsibly to expose the rot in our sport, leaving them complicit. In addition, US Fencing has been censoring our athletes’ right to free speech, editing what can and cannot be said.
"Bout manipulation has been raised to USFA for the last three years, yet the issue continues to prevail in our sport. To uphold and protect a level piste for all our athletes, we urge the board members of USFA to take action. First, to ensure the report from the investigators is made public.  Without an open and transparent investigation that protects whistleblowers, athletes’ confidence in the governing body will be weak. Secondly, to reallocate the points from the bout manipulation so that the Olympic selection process maintains its integrity."

In late April, when announcing sanctions against Morales and Romo, US Fencing said the investigators had "found no evidence suggesting broader issues within the referee cadre at USA Fencing national tournaments, indicating that the refereeing improprieties that occurred at the January NAC were an isolated incident" but that a fuller report would "be published as soon as reasonably possible".