What the WADA Ban on Russia Means for Fencing in the 2020 Olympics

Recently we saw a big step taken by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the fight against performance enhancing substances in international sport. 

This is a hugely controversial topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it, and those opinions can be shouted loudly as well as whispered quietly. We’re not here to wade into the fray of who’s right and what the ramifications should be, we just want to let our readers know what’s going on and how it relates to fencing. This is an area that not everyone knows a lot about, and so making sense of it can be tough. We’re here to help you make sense of it!

This is going to be a huge topic of conversation going into the 2020 Olympics next summer, but remember that the ramifications of these decisions by WADA reach out to all international competitions. 

What brought on the ban for Russia

It doesn’t take a great deal for an individual athlete to get banned from competing in international sport. A single positive test result that is verified for a banned substance is enough to get you removed from the competition. The consequences get bigger every time you’re caught doping, escalating all the way to a lifetime ban from international competition.

What makes the Russian case unique is that it involved a systematic doping policy that was driven by the officials behind sport in that country. We are not talking about a single individual or a group of individuals who did this, we’re talking about an organization.

This whole thing is nothing new. The Russian team was censured for this same reason in the 2018 Olympics in Korea. Many athletes did not compete under the Russian flag. When the hockey team won gold, they and members of the crowd actually drowned out the sound of the Olympic theme when it was playing – that’s how loud they were singing! The country also had many of its medals stripped following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia because of doping. 

The allegations of state-sponsored, organized doping by Russia go back to 2012 and a lab that purportedly altered hundreds of test results. The whole situation has become highly politicized, with the Russian government offering a feisty and sustained defense. 

Possible Serious Fencing Ramifications

If Russia is banned from the Olympics, then based on my understanding Russia will not be able to qualify teams for fencing. That means that instead of two events (team and individual), Russian fencers will only be eligible for the individual competition. The logistics of team competition at the individual competition in fencing in the Olympics means that qualifying teams add three individuals to the individual competition – individuals that would not compete if they didn’t qualify for the team. This means that without the team competing for Russia, what will happen is that only 1 (!!!) fencer per discipline can potentially compete individually, if they are among the top ranked fencers individually.

To briefly summarize why team qualification is central for Olympic qualification, following is how it works in fencing. First, 4 top teams automatically qualify. Then 1 top team from each zone (Europe, Asia, Americas, Africa) qualify if it is ranked 5 to 16. If there is no team from a specific zone in top 16, then the top country that it next in the ranking will qualify, not matter the zone.

Let’s break that down again. If I follow the logic of the WADA correctly, Russia will not be able to participate as a team in the team competition. Based on the qualification process for the Olympic Games, a team can only participate if they qualify through the qualification path, and at that point they get to participate in both events. Russia cannot do that, as there is no such team as the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” in the FIE team points. So this means that only maximum 1 fencer can participate.

This is of course my understanding and I might be mistaken.

WADA’s Ban Makes Changes for Everyone

Let’s say that I’m not. Let’s say that Russia cannot compete with more than one potential fencer per event. The consequences of this are huge, and not just for Russia. This major ramification will fall onto everyone else. 

Why’s that?

First, Russia is among the leaders in every discipline – men/women, foil/sabre/epee, individual/team. The country was #1 in the latest World Championship in Budapest and in Rio at Olympic Games four years ago. They are always medal contenders in any international competition, from World and European Championships to the Olympic Games.

Second, banning of Russia and freeing its quota gives many other teams the opportunity to qualify. Many countries wouldn’t be able to qualify if Russia were to be present, per the Tokyo 2020 qualification rules.

In particular, let’s look at the current status of the team point standing in every discipline. Let’s assume, just for the sake of making an argument and understanding the point, that this current team standing will be the final one. Of course, with some of the team events still being scheduled till April this isn’t going to be the case, still, it does make a good illustration of my point.

Following you will find a snapshot of the current team standing after last weekend’s Team World Cup in Men’s Foil, Women’s Foil, and Women’s Sabre were completed and FIE updated the results. These charts show the top 16 teams in every discipline, based on today’s team standing as of December 17, 2019. 

FIE Team Ranking as of December 17, 2019

RankWomen’s EpeeWomen’s FoilWomen’s SabreMen’s EpeeMen’s FoilMen’s Sabre
6ItalyCanadaHungaryUkraineHong KongRussia
11HungaryChinaSpainIsraelGreat BritainEgypt
13Hong KongSpainTurkeyDenmarkUkraineGeorgia
14JapanHong KongCanadaGermanyDenmarkCanada
16CanadaSingaporeAzerbaijanPolandBrazilGreat Britain

Based on this information currently, and for the sake of making the point we are going to assume that nothing will change, without the ban Russia will qualify for EVERY event at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Which is the maximum possible qualification for the country in fencing.

Moreover, there are only 3 countries who qualified for every event based on the current team standing: Russia, USA and Italy. This means that Russia will have 6 events with 3 athletes in each event individually, so in total there will be 18 Olympic fencers fencing individually and additional 6 fencers fencing in a team (1 fourth fencer added to the team event). So total 24 guaranteed and qualified Olympians!

Based on how I understand this, if Russia is banned , then the qualification will just scratch it from the points and move all of the countries which stand after Russia one place up.

What we have per weapon would be the following countries will qualifying if Russia is not banned and also if Russia is banned: this will let you see all of the possible outcomes. 

Women’s Epee

  • If Russia is not banned: Poland, Russia, China, USA, Estonia, Korea, Canada, Italy (no African team in top 16)
  • If Russia is banned: Poland, China, USA, Estonia, Italy, Korea, Canada, Germany (no African team in top 16 even without Russia)

This is a change  in Women’s Epee – Germany replaces Russia

Women’s Foil

  • If Russia is not banned: Russia, Italy, France, USA, Japan, Canada, Poland, Egypt
  • If Russia is banned: Italy, France, USA, Japan, Canada, Korea, Poland, Egypt

This is a change in Women’s Foil – Korea replaces Russia.

Women’s Sabre

  • If Russia is not banned: Russia, France, Italy, Korea, USA, Hungary, China, Ukraine (no African team in top 16)
  • If Russia is banned: France, Italy, Korea, USA, Hungary, China, Venezuela, Ukraine (no African team in top 16)

This is a change  in Women’s Foil – Venezuela replaces Russia

Men’s Epee

  • If Russia is not banned:  France, Russia, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Ukraine, USA, China (no African team in top 16)
  • If Russia is banned: France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Ukraine, China, USA, Korea (no African team in top 16 even without Russia)

This is a change  in Men’s Epee – Korea replaces Russia

Men’s Foil

  • If Russia is not banned:  USA, France, Italy, Korea, Russia, Hong Kong, Egypt, Canada
  • If Russia is banned: USA, France, Italy, Korea, Germany, Egypt, Canada, Hong Kong

This is a change  in Men’s Foil – Germany replaces Russia

Men’s Sabre

  • If Russia is not banned:  Korea, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Iran, Russia, USA, Egypt
  • If Russia is banned: Korea, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Iran, France, USA, Egypt

This is a change  in Men’s Sabre – France replaces Russia

The Big Picture

As we see, the change is very significant and the competition will be of course of a bit of lower level, in some disciplines very much noticeable, as many top athletes will be as out of qualified 34 fencers. 

Moveover, if we drill down to who automatically qualified to the individual competition after the teams are selected, we will see the following Russian Athletes, based on their current individual FIE ranking:

WE – Violetta Kolobova

WF – Inna Deriglazova

WS – Sofia Velikaya

ME – Sergey Bida

MF – Alexey Cheremisinov 

MS – Kamil Ibragimov

Of course, so many great names will be missing, including World and Olympic Champions of recent years, such as Olympic Champions 2016 from Men’s Foil Team and Women’s Sabre Team.

Instead of 24 Russian fencers who qualify for the Olympic Games and realize their Olympic dream, only 6 will potentially do that.

This WADA’s ban is of course a tragedy for athletes who worked for four years to qualify for the Olympics, and for some this is their last potential Olympic Games. These athletes because of this ban will not be able to participate in the Games.

It is not only that they will not compete under their nation’s flag, which by itself is a big deal to every athlete of every nation, but only one athlete from Russia might potentially  compete in each discipline.

Given that in last Rio Olympic Games 2016 Russians earned seven medals, including 4 (!) Golds, 1 Silver, and 2 Bronze, and in the last 2019 Fencing World Championship in Budapest, Russians earned also 7 medals in 12 disciplines, including 3 Gold, 3 Silver and 1 Bronze, we are going to miss fantastic teams and individual fencers, making these upcoming Games so different.

I really hope that I have made the wrong interpretation of the WADA recommendations. This is not something that has been fully addressed yet, and I hope that we will find a happy ending that we can all be happy with. It’s a difficult situation, and please, if you know better I would love to learn from you!

In the meantime, let’s all realize that the Olympic dream is a fragile thing. Even when it seems like a sure bet.