“Protected Again And Again”: How A Fencer Made It To The Tokyo Olympics Despite Sexual Assault Allegations

The US Center for SafeSport was tasked with investigating sexual abuse claims at Olympic programs. But in the first Summer Games since the agency’s creation, Team USA fencers say the system failed them.

Ten days after fencer Alen Hadzic secured a spot as an alternate on the US Olympic team, a group of women took their concerns about him straight to the top.

The six women fencers, including two Olympic athletes, wrote to the Olympic committee that Hadzic should not be allowed to represent the US because he was under investigation for at least three accusations of sexual misconduct reported to the US Center for SafeSport, the nonprofit agency responsible for protecting athletes from abuse. His presence at the Games, they said, was a “direct affront” to fellow athletes and put them at risk.

“We are gravely concerned about the impact Mr. Hadzic’s potential presence will have on other Team USA athletes,” they wrote on May 20.

Two months later, Hadzic is one of 24 Olympic fencers in Tokyo, an alternate on the men’s épée team, attaining a rarefied spot at the pinnacle of his sport, to the dismay of his teammates. Though last month SafeSport had suspended Hadzic from the international competition, the 29-year-old from Montclair, New Jersey, fought to get that prohibition lifted through an arbitration process that ultimately permitted him to participate in the Summer Games. Acknowledging the severity of the allegations facing Hadzic, USA Fencing, the athletic federation in charge of selecting the country’s Olympic competitors, created a “safety plan” to keep him away from women and out of the Olympic Village: He flew in on a separate plane from his teammates, is staying at a hotel 30 minutes away from the other athletes, and won't be allowed to practice alongside women teammates. After he appealed those conditions, the entire roster of Team USA fencers signed a letter demanding the restriction stay in place.

But to many of his teammates, he shouldn’t be representing the country at all.

“We are pissed off that this is even a thing we had to deal with,” an Olympic fencer who filed a complaint against Hadzic alleging predatory behavior told BuzzFeed News from Tokyo. “He’s been protected again and again.”

Complaints about Hadzic’s alleged behavior were no secret in the close-knit fencing community. Interviews with 30 current and former USA fencers and officials, including three women who have formally accused Hadzic of sexual misconduct, as well as a cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, show a pattern of alleged sexual misconduct and violent behavior going back to 2010 when he was a first-year student at Columbia University.

The question over whether Hadzic would be allowed to compete in Tokyo fell to SafeSport, the nonprofit agency Congress put in charge of investigating misconduct in Olympic sports in 2018 following revelations that former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had sexually assaulted scores of athletes. But though three women formally filed reports this year to SafeSport, and at least 10 others submitted statements to support their allegations, Hadzic’s ability to temporarily circumvent his suspension and make his way to the sport’s most prominent platform has left many athletes skeptical of the organization’s capacity to act decisively on allegations of sexual misconduct — and prompted a reckoning on the sexual abuse, harassment, and male entitlement that some fencers say run deep within their sport’s culture. This comes at a time when other Olympic athletes, such as Sha'Carri Richardson, have been barred from competing in the Games for testing positive for cannabis.

“Now we have to deal with the consequences of having a predator on the team while simultaneously competing in the biggest event of our lives.”

“If this had been dealt with in the way that it should have been, he should have not even had the opportunity to try to make the Olympic team,” the fencer told BuzzFeed News before leaving for Tokyo. “And now we have to deal with the consequences of having a predator on the team while simultaneously competing in the biggest event of our lives. And I think that's a very unfair position to put us in.”

Hadzic has denied allegations of sexual misconduct, telling USA Today that “they’re untruths.” His attorney, Michael Palma, told the New York Times that his client had never committed any acts of sexual assault. By barring him from staying in the Olympic Village, Palma said USA Fencing was preventing Hadzic “from participating in the Olympic experience that he has rightfully earned.” Hadzic's lawyers didn't respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the US Center for SafeSport said they could not speak on the case, citing the center’s commitment to confidentiality. In statements, both USA Fencing and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee told BuzzFeed News that they didn’t have the power to determine Hadzic’s eligibility. USA Fencing explained that SafeSport has the “exclusive authority” in cases involving sexual misconduct, and said it does not consider unproven allegations of sexual abuse when determining who qualifies for the Olympic team.

Hadzic, it said, had earned enough points in competition to earn one of the coveted spots.

Hadzic fell into fencing a little later than other elite athletes. In his first year at Montclair High School in New Jersey, he started a band, and his drummer convinced him to sign up for the fencing team. “He said it was cool, that it was part of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ So I gave it a shot,” Hadzic told the Montclair Local back in 2018. In the 12th grade, he made the US Junior and Cadet World Championship team as a member of the men’s épée squad (épée is a type of sword), and his success garnered him a reputation. The world of fencing is small and close-knit. Fencers, even across the country, grew up together at tournaments and camps, and athletes who went to college with Hadzic remembered watching him compete and hearing about his wins as they made their way through high school.

But when Hadzic started at Columbia University in 2010, his reputation evolved. He was still gregarious and outgoing, but would often exhibit streaks of aggression, according to 25 of his peers and teammates. He could “turn off and on like a light switch,” a former captain said, and at times was “very scary to be around,” especially when he was drinking. In one report to SafeSport, a former teammate said that when they were walking home from a bar, she witnessed Hadzic kick an unhoused person while he was sleeping on the ground and “then laugh about it.”

Katya English, a former fencer who dated Hadzic on and off for about a year before and during their first year at college, said their last physical interaction in 2010 left her upset and shaken. During a sexual encounter in his dorm room, when she told him she wanted to stop, he berated and pressured her to continue, she recalled. Looking back at what happened to her when she was 18, she said she has “come to understand what happened to me was a form of sexual coercion.”

“If I were a woman in Tokyo, I would absolutely demand security if he was going to be on the premises,” said English, who now works at the East Los Angeles Women’s Center supporting survivors of rape and domestic abuse. She has also submitted a report to SafeSport.

During his first year at Columbia, after several fencing parties and outings at bars, a whisper network developed among women on the team and in the community spreading a warning about Hadzic: He could be a little too pushy, so don't get too close or be alone with him, especially at parties, according to 12 women who knew him at the time. Their allegations include him following them into bedrooms at parties, ignoring multiple rebuffs while trying to kiss them, and touching them without consent.

It became apparent, 10 sources who fenced with Hadzic told BuzzFeed News, that he had a simple M.O.: Find the drunkest woman at the party, preferably a first-year student, and she’ll “do whatever you want,” as one former classmate described. One Columbia fencer, who is currently in Tokyo with Hadzic, said she experienced that herself in 2013. At a fencing party her first year of college, when Hadzic was in his third year, she said she was feeling nauseated from drinking and wanted to lie down when he followed her into a bedroom and “tried to take advantage” of her, she said. She brushed him off multiple times, she recalled, until someone else came into the room, allowing her to leave. The athlete reported that incident to SafeSport this May, writing in her complaint, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, that her teammate “attempted to sexually coerce me when I was in no condition to consent to anything.”

As one woman athlete explained, it was common for guys in college to be flirtatious or suddenly grab them; the women were usually able to laugh and push them off. But it was different with Hadzic, she said: “He would just keep going. Like, ‘I am going to keep pursuing this.’”

Later in 2013, another fencer formally accused Hadzic of sexually abusing her in a dorm room during a party. After a Title IX investigation, Columbia suspended him from campus for a year. However, according to 10 Columbia fencers interviewed for this story, Hadzic ignored the rules of his suspension and would often linger around campus and pop up at parties and hangouts.

A spokesperson from Columbia University declined to answer specific questions about Hadzic, citing “federal student privacy laws,” but in a statement said the “University condemns sexual misconduct in any form.” Leading up to the Olympic Games, Columbia’s social media accounts and website have highlighted students and alumni competing for Team USA, including every fencer, but never mentioned Hadzic.

While he was suspended from Columbia, Hadzic would go to other schools to party, including Penn State. Three former Penn State fencers told BuzzFeed News that they saw him at their social events several times, but had no idea he had been suspended and kicked off his university’s team.

That spring, after some collegiate athletes finished competing in NCAA championships, Penn State fencers hosted a party at what was known as the “UN House,” a bustling apartment near campus. According to two fencers present at a party one night, Hadzic had bragged, while laughing, that he had sex with a younger woman there who was seen crying later that night. Someone eventually filed a report to SafeSport about the incident, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, and an investigator reached out to a former student and resident of the UN House last month to discuss the complaint. The former student was surprised to learn, though, that SafeSport had not reached out to any of his friends or teammates about the incident.

In an interview with the New York Times, Palma, Hadzic’s lawyer, contended that the athlete had never been officially charged with rape or any civil or criminal complaint involving sexual misconduct. The Title IX investigation, he said, was about sexual consent, and the proceedings were a “Kangaroo court.”

Although Columbia had suspended Hadzic for a year and expelled him from fencing, he was still able to return and complete his degree. But his name started appearing scrawled on bathroom walls, as part of a list of men whom the university had allegedly found guilty of sexual assault but still allowed on campus, according to English, his former fencing teammate, and Emma Sulkowicz, another Columbia fencer who also led a movement that year calling attention to the experiences of sexual assault survivors by carrying around her dorm mattress to protest going to school with her alleged rapist.

“He made my life a living hell at Columbia.”

While he pursued his degree, he was also able to continue fencing at a national level, earning silver at a North American cup in December 2013 and competing in four other high-level tournaments the following year, according to USA Fencing. He was known for being a “freak athlete” with a long reach and small repertoire of masterful moves, which enable him to close fast and attack opponents “before they blink,” a former Olympic fencing coach said.

The lack of lasting repercussions for Hadzic, 10 women fencers said, was emblematic of how their institutions and coaches handled complaints about their male peers. Three women fencing captains told BuzzFeed News that they had complained to their coaches multiple times about Hadzic’s attitude and behavior toward them during practices.

“He made my life a living hell at Columbia because he was extremely emotionally and psychologically abusive,” one woman said, recalling several instances in which she brought up her concerns to her fencing coaches, including head coach Michael Aufrichtig, who did not respond to a list of questions sent to him by BuzzFeed News. “At the time, nothing could be done. We were all so helpless in the situation because he just continues to get what he wants because he is a really fantastic fencer.”

When Hadzic began his postcollegiate athletic career, the USA Fencing board of directors served as something like a “Supreme Court” for cases of misconduct and would institute bans ranging anywhere from two years to life for serious violations, such as sexual assault. Among the members of that board was Michael Aufrichtig, Hadzic’s coach at Columbia.

Though Hadzic was banned from representing his university, he wasn’t banned from fencing at large. Three members who served on the board with Aufrichtig said that Hadzic’s disciplinary record was never brought to their attention.

"If his case would have been brought, he probably would have been banned," one board member said.

"It should have been promptly investigated and appropriate action taken," said another. "This is very disturbing."

Aufrichtig did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

After college, Hadzic took a break from fencing after falling short of making the 2016 Olympic team. He worked and studied in Belgium before deciding in 2018 to dedicate himself full-time to making the 2020 Olympic roster.

By that time, the revelations of sexual assault committed by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had changed the way Olympic sports handle reports of abuse, taking investigations out of the hands of athletic federations incentivized to protect their stars. In 2018, Congress enacted a law giving an independent nonprofit agency, the US Center for SafeSport, sole authority to investigate claims of sexual misconduct within teams or programs affiliated with the Olympics.

In May 2021, Hadzic reached a No. 4 ranking among US fencers, good enough to qualify as an alternate for the Olympics, bringing his former teammates to the realization that there was a chance he’d end up securing a spot coveted by hundreds of fencers. “Just about any aspiring fencer would sell their souls to have it,” the former Olympic coach told BuzzFeed News.

When USA Fencing announced Hadzic’s selection to the team on Instagram with an image of him giving a thumbs-up in celebration, some of his former teammates, including former Columbia captain Katie Angen, shared and commented on the post with outrage, calling out USA Fencing for supporting a “predator.” “Disgusting,” Angen wrote, “that US fencing let’s someone who actively preys on drunk and sober women represent our country.”

The governing body quickly disabled comments on its Instagram post.

Angen and two other women then filed complaints against Hadzic with SafeSport. But as weeks went by and the 2021 Summer Games approached, the fencers feared the investigation was moving too slowly. On May 20, Angen and a group of Team USA fencers, including two Olympians, emailed the US Olympic Committee expressing their “deep concern” about Hadzic’s potential presence in Tokyo.

A few days later, in an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the Olympic Committee replied that they had shared the matter with SafeSport and provided a list of available mental health services, including a subscription to the meditation app Headspace and another “app that provides athletes with a suite of online tools and courses that help athletes identify, understand, and address their mental health.”

“That was their only response,” Angen said. “It was unbelievable.”

On June 2, SafeSport suspended Hadzic due to the ongoing investigation, preventing him from participating in the Olympics. But after Hadzic pushed for an arbitration hearing on June 28, the arbitrator sided with him, lifting his suspension until the final investigative report was complete and allowing the fencer to go to the Tokyo Games, but not on the same flight as his teammates and under the condition that he be sequestered from other athletes throughout the Games.

“I just don’t want this to be for nothing,” Angen said. “While I’m saddened that it takes his qualification for the Olympics to make this a newsworthy story, I’m hopeful that those in positions of authority will finally begin to address this as the serious and systemic issue that it is.”

“SafeSport is a joke,” said a male fencer. “I have no faith in SafeSport.”

To many in the fencing community, Hadzic’s case is only the most high-profile example of a broader problem stemming from a sense of entitlement among many athletes and officials, and of SafeSport’s inability to police the sport.

“It’s a systemic culture of rich white males,” said Essene Waters, who has spent more than a decade as a fencer and referee.

In interviews, 30 fencers, coaches, and referees described a climate in which some athletes say they’ve been told to sit on a coach’s lap, have been groped in hotel elevators at tournaments, or threatened with violence if they didn’t engage in sexual acts. A woman University of North Carolina fencing coach filed a civil suit last year alleging that a male assistant coach at Penn State groped her in view of other athletes on a flight from a fencing tournament. A survey of women fencers conducted in 2018 found that of 218 respondents, 129 said they’d been sexually harassed by another member of the fencing community. Forty-one of those respondents said they’d been sexually assaulted by someone within the sport. Yet, the survey found, only three sexual assaults had been reported to SafeSport.

Much of the hesitancy to report to SafeSport is due to what dozens of athletes described as the center’s spotty reputation in the fencing community.

“The quality of the investigations do vary widely, depending on the investigator that you get,” said Lindsay Brandon, a sports attorney who has represented both those lodging and defending misconduct claims.

At least five fencers who have filed complaints to SafeSport told BuzzFeed News that the agency got basic facts of their case wrong, didn’t interview key witnesses before clearing an alleged abuser of wrongdoing, or took too long to investigate abuses.

“It really just feels like the organization is being protected from liability,” said one woman, a longtime fencer who complained that it took three to four years ​​for a man suspected as an abuser through fencing’s whisper network to be banned for life. “A lot of us are very frustrated because it doesn't feel like the cogs work very quickly.”

“SafeSport is a joke,” said a male fencer. “I have no faith in SafeSport.”

Another woman fencer said she filed a complaint after a male referee had repeatedly stalked her. One night after a tournament, he cornered her in a bar and threatened to kill her dog if she didn’t have sex with him, she said. She said that months later, the man pressured her hotel roommate into giving him a copy of their room key “to assault me.” Another person intervened before the man could harm her, she said.

She reported these incidents to SafeSport in 2019, and the case wasn’t closed until earlier this year, she said. She said she was shuffled among three different investigators, yet none of her witnesses said they were contacted. She agreed to drop her claim in exchange for the man agreeing to counseling.

She summarized her experience with SafeSport: “horrible.”

Waters, the woman referee and épée fencer, said she filed a SafeSport complaint in January 2018 after the coach at her club asked her to sit on his lap, then started moving his hand from her hip to her breast. The investigation concluded that he didn't violate SafeSport code, but when Waters received the investigative report, she found that basic facts in it were wrong, she said. The investigator wrote that Waters left the club, in part, because she wanted to follow her boyfriend. Waters said she didn’t have a boyfriend at the time.

“I couldn’t even finish reading it,” Waters said of the report.

SafeSport declined to comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality policies, and didn’t respond to questions for this story.

Some of SafeSport’s perceived shortcomings stem from inadequate funding, said Brandon, the attorney. In 2018, SafeSport operated on an $11 million budget, with fees collected from the governing boards of various sports, as well as grants and donations. That same year, the center received over 1,800 reports of misconduct, all to be handled by a staff of fewer than 40 employees, according to SafeSport's annual report. In 2020, a new law required the US Olympic committee to increase its contributions to $20 million — a financial boost that has helped the agency hire new investigators and staff to help manage the caseload.

Meanwhile, Olympic fencing competitions begin Saturday, and on top of trying to quell their nerves and prepare for the biggest moment of their lives, four fencers told BuzzFeed News the extra stress stemming from Hadzic’s presence has been infuriating and exhausting. If a member of the men’s épée team gets injured or sick, Hadzic will take his place on the international strip, for all the world to watch.

“It’s very, very disappointing for me to be on the same team as him and to be representing the United States of America,” the Olympic fencer who filed a SafeSport complaint against Hadzic told BuzzFeed News. “I’ve worked my entire life to get here. And to see this awful human be able to share this moment and be able to represent Team USA is just deplorable.” ●


This story has been updated with additional information from sources who reached out after publication.

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