It may bear a strong resemblance to Medieval sword fighting, but it turns out even fencing can be hacked. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, a Soviet fencer did just that, leading to one of the most infamous incidents of Olympic cheating of the Cold War era.
Fencing, part of the Modern Pentathlon, is all about precision, a game of inches in which a quick dodge or the lightest touch can make all the difference. Russia’s Boris Onischenko, a brilliant pentathlete who had won gold with his team in 1972, was trying to get around that whole “touching” part. To do so, he re-wired his epée’s electronic sensing technology, tricking the system into thinking he had scored a hit when he had not.
All he had to do was make it look like he may have struck his opponent, flick a switch hidden in the handle of his weapon, and voilà – a touch!
Though he had duped the electronics, Onischenko’s British opponents quickly realized something was up. Being on good terms with their Soviet competitors, they assumed Onischenko’s sword was merely faulty, but they still brought it to the attention of the officials.
That meant Onischenko’s epée had to be inspected. He switched weapons and continued to dominate the competition, but a little while later officials determined that he had tampered with his sword. Disqualified, he was rushed out of the venue, apologizing profusely to his bewildered British friends.
Unlike the athletes involved in Russia’s current Olympic cheating scandal, Onischenko appears to have acted alone. His countrymen were reportedly furious with him, the Soviet volleyball team even threatening to throw him out of a window. Instead of defenestration – or hard labor in a Siberian salt mine, as some rumors suggested – Onischenko received a dressing-down from Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev back in Moscow.
What possessed one of the best pentathletes in the world to cheat? Onischenko himself vanished from the public eye without giving an answer.
Jim Fox, one of the Brits who exposed him, blamed “terrible political pressure.” Politics did loom over the Olympics in this era, as the 1972 games had been marred by the Black September massacre and Cold War rivalries led to boycotts of the ’76, ’80, and ’84 games.
As Western tabloids ridiculed “Dis-Onischenko,” the disqualification of the Russian team cleared the way for the Brits to make a surprise gold-medal run. Fox and his friends, however, were saddened by the actions of their Russian comrade, whose team had been the clear favorite to win gold.
Bizarre though his actions were, Onischenko’s story is one of the goofier, more lighthearted moments of a tumultuous period in Olympic history. Still, they cost him his career and handed the gold medal to Great Britain.
The scandal also led to a new rule in Olympic fencing: watch closely during the Rio games and you’ll notice that fencers are not allowed to use grips like Onischenko’s. Your legacy lives on, Boris!