The curious case of fencer Boris Onischenko. For some athletes, are the stakes of winning so high they will they go to greater, more nefarious lengths to win?
The story of a swashbuckling scandal that unfolds like a John Le Carre spy novel: the curious case of fencer Boris Onischenko. For some athletes, are the stakes of winning so high they will they go to greater, more nefarious lengths to win? Hosted by Molly Bloom. Produced by FilmNation Entertainment in association with Gilded Audio.
Mike Proudfoot: He was fairly short. Like five-nine. Perhaps five-10. Balding. When you saw him, you wouldn't think, Wow. There's a super athlete.
That’s Mike Proudfoot. Decades ago, Proudfoot was a pentathlete for the British Olympic Team. His team’s greatest rival was the team from the Soviet Union. The Soviet team’s greatest pentathlete was a man named Boris Onischenko.
Onischenko may have been slight in physical stature, but he was a formidable, decorated athlete.
Proudfoot: He’d been an individual world champion. He'd been team champion in the Olympics team gold medal, individual silver medal in the Olympics. At the top of his sport.
So he was very, very good.
Why did he think it was necessary to cheat?
The Olympics have produced countless heroes through the years. But the Olympics have also produced a fair share of cheaters. PED users, blood dopers, corrupt coaches in cahoots
And there’s never been an Olympic cheat quite as ingenious—as audacious—as Boris Onischenko.
The setting was the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. The date was July 19—a sweltering summer morning. It was Day Two of the five-day modern pentathlon competition, which includes: fencing, swimming, horse riding, shooting, and running. This day’s event: fencing.
Fencing is a sport of nobility and honor—the point of the duel is not to inflict harm but to earn or restore honor. By the 1970s, the Olympic version includes body cords and electric circuitry. When a fencer registers a hit, a light goes off at the judges’ table.
In a morning bout, Boris Onischenko finds himself face to face with a British opponent named Jim Fox.
Mike Proudfoot is serving as
team manager that day and is one of the few onlookers sitting feet from the action.
And two minutes in, something odd happens.
Proudfoot: Onischenko made an attack. But before the point of his weapon had gotten anywhere near Jim Fox…his light went on.
The light at the judges’ table signaled a hit, but the tip of Onischenko’s sword — his epee— was pointing toward the sky.
That bizarre occurrence will set off a chain of events. Angry objections, an attempted cover-up, meetings behind closed doors. Then, stunning news: the most decorated pentathlete in the field is disqualified. His Olympic run is over.
Proudfoot looks on as two men in trench coats and hats walk into the arena.
Proudfoot: I saw two guys who were so patently, obviously Russian officials indeed,
probably KGB men coming into the fencing hall and going over to Onischenko and marching him out.
For years, and decades to come, the events of the day will fascinate, baffle, and even haunt those who were involved. The story of Boris Onischenko and his electrified epee is a tale of deception, betrayal, and secret lives —- but also confessions, redemption and even forgiveness.
Proudfoot: Quite a lot of cheating in sports has been relatively spontaneous. It wasn’t just a spontaneous thing. This required engineering, ingenuity. It has a number of features, which make it kind of a bit like a spy story in a way —- the fact that if he was a KGB man I think just adds to it.
That’s right. On top of everything, Boris Onischenko may have been
a KGB spy.
Molly: I’m Molly Bloom, and this is TORCHED, a show about the heat of competition: and what the greatest athletes would lose... to win.
This season is about controversies and scandals on the biggest world stage: the Olympics.
And this episode is about a swashbuckling scandal that unfolds like a John Le Carre spy novel: the curious case of Boris Onischenko.
Farber: Boris Onischenko was 38 and Montreal was going to represent his last grab at the golden ring: He'd never won an individual gold medal.
That’s Michael Farber, a Montreal-based writer who wrote a story on Boris Onischenko for Sports Illustrated. Farber
notes that while Onischenko was a decorated Olympian, with three medals already, one key medal eluded him: an individual gold medal in the modern pentathlon. Onischenko would turn 39 within months; this would be his last chance for that title that could change his life forever.
Farber: At that time in the Soviet Union, if you won a gold medal you were pretty well set for life. He was a major in the interior ministry. He would've gotten a promotion. He would've gotten a better apartment. His life would have been better. And he found himself at that crossroads.
But even if he was nearing the end of his career, Onischenko was formidable; as was his three-member Soviet team.
Here’s Mike Proudfoot again. Proudfoot competed for Britain in modern pentathlon at the world championships before becoming the team manager at the Olympics.
Proudfoot: The Soviet team were favorites before the competition started. They had an
incredibly experienced team. Pavol Lenyev had been world championship several times. The third member of their team was Boris Mosolov who had been world junior champion just a couple years before. So they had a really really strong team and they were the favorites.
The modern pentathlon isn’t modern at all: it’s been a core Olympic event since 1912, and to this day, the competition features the same five events: freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, cross country running, and fencing.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the event was held over five days.
Farber: The second event was the fencing. And this was Onischenko’s strength. He was by far the best epee-ist of all the modern pentathletes and if it had been an open epic competition, he might have ranked among the 10 or 12 best
fencers in that discipline in the world. So he was going to clean everybody, whether he cheated or he didn't.
This begs the question: why would Onischenko even consider gaining an unfair advantage in competition?
For starters, there was incentive to win the fencing bouts quickly, and easily—-less time spent fencing meant you were less fatigued for the upcoming events. It’s possible Onischenko wanted to conserve his energy for the remaining three days of the competition.
But Onischenko may simply have wanted to ensure that he won because the stakes were especially high in the fencing round.
Proudfoot: Fencing is a crucial event because what uniquely happens in the fencing event is that you can actually deprive your opponents of points. So if you beat your opponent, you get a victory and they get a defeat. If you play them and beat them, you’ve got
a kind of double advantage.
Entering the second day of competition and the fencing component, the British and Soviet teams were neck and neck, which made the day of fencing all the more critical in deciding the results. In other words: the fate of the Olympians would likely be decided in the fencing arena.
Proudfoot: The fencing started around nine-o’clock in the morning. We obviously got to the venue, which was the University of Montreal gymnasium, which fortunately was air conditioned. Thank goodness, because it was a hot and humid day.
It’s the morning of July 19. And by 9 am, there’s a crowd inside the university of Montreal arena, settled in for a full day’s worth of fencing competitions. Multiple bouts will be taking place at the same time, on fencing areas called Pistes.
Competition starts with the Soviets fencing against their countrymen. Onischenko wins his two matches. Then, bouts between competing nations begin. First up for the Soviets
Great Britain. In the first match, Onischenko faces a British competitor named Adrian Parker. Almost immediately, it seems that something is off.
Proudfoot: They were fighting and then suddenly Onischenko’s light came on indicating that he had made a hit and Adrian turned to the judge, sort of turned to us, sitting beside the piste and said, He didn't…. He didn't hit me!
Now, before we continue: a quick primer for you non-fencing experts. A hit is scored when the tip of the epee is depressed. That action closes an electrical circuit within the epee. The circuit continues from the handle through a wire that runs through the fencer’s jacket, through a tether that runs to the scoring box…which flashes a red or green light to indicate who scores a hit.
Modern pentathlon fencing bouts end with a single hit or after three minutes if there are no touches.
So when Onischenko’s light comes on, the match is over. The referee, or judge, of the bout—-who is sometimes called the president—-calls the match for Onischenko. But to Proudfoot and the British team members looking on, Onischenko’s hit seems too good to be true.
Proudfoot: The president tried all the different tests to see what might’ve happened. In the end, the judge said, you know, I can’t see anything wrong with the equipment. I didn’t see a hit myself, but there must have been a hit because I haven’t found anything.
Proudfoot: Adrian was of course, very annoyed by this and came sort of stomping off the piste then grumbling. It was strange. It was certainly strange.
The competition continues. Next up for Onischenko on the piste is Jim Fox, a gold medal contender who had notched a perfect score in the riding event a day earlier.
Farber: Jim Fox was a revered figure in the sport because he was a gentleman. He was handsome, dashing kind of man. If you held up a mirror to a modern pentathlete, they would say, yeah, I want to be that guy. He was also very talented in his sport, but he was almost a James Bond-like figure.
A four-time Olympian, Fox, like Onischenko, was experienced and accomplished. And he was also well-acquainted with Onischenko—- the two had gone head to head at the 1972 Games. There, Onischenko took the silver medal and Fox finished fourth.
This time, in their fencing bout, the match goes nearly to the end without a hit.
seconds remain when Onischenko goes on the attack.
Proudfoot is sitting a meter from them when he sees what happens next.
Proudfoot: Onischenko made an attack. But before the point of his weapon had got anywhere near Jim Fox — Jim Fox parried the attack so that he moved Onischenko’s sword, right out of the way — his light went on. Everybody could see it. Those photographs show this.
So it was absolutely clear it wasn’t a hit.
As Proudfoot says, there are photographs of this moment. The tip of Onischenko’s epee is actually pointing skyward when the light on the scoring box is on.
There is no doubt: Onischenko hadn’t touched Fox.
It is so obvious that the referee immediately annulls the hit. And Onischenko does not object.
Proudfoot: When that happened Onischenko’s immediate reaction was to say, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. I change my weapon. I change my weapon. So he turned to
one of his teammates and said, give me, give me another weapon.
The referee takes Onischenko’s weapon from him.
Proudfoot: Onischenko then took a different weapon from one of his teammates, and he fenced Fox and beat him legitimately.
But you know, that was really… interesting.
After the bout, Proudfoot and Fox approach the officials and argue that there was clearly something wrong with Onischenko’s weapon —- that it needs to be investigated.
But they aren’t the only ones who can’t believe what they have just seen. There are two spectators who are about to play a critical role.
Farber: Nicholas Bacon was a 12 year old boy who was undergoing treatment for cancer. And he was the guest of Mary Glen-Haig, who was a famous fencer. Later, Mary Glen-Haig would be a member of the International Olympic Committee. They were fencing daft.
And they were watching the British team, especially because they were Britons.
And the boy said that was impossible. There was no touch and it was recorded. And Mary Glenn-Haig was not a woman to be trifled with. And she actually marched down to the piste and she demanded a thorough examination.
Mary Glen-Haig’s animated objections spurred the officials to do a thorough examination; without her protests, it’s possible that Onischenko would have had time to cover up his tracks.
Farber: There was a question about where the sword was and it's significant because Onischenko was left-handed. And when the judges went to look at the sword, he gave them initially a right-handed sword. Well, there was no other left-hander.
...he could have been the only one with the faulty sword because the other two members of the team, and indeed the
alternate were right-handed. When the judges go to examine it, it's kind of like a game of three-sword monte. They're moving it around. It could be on a street corner in Manhattan playing the judges for marks.
But they figured out what was going on.
In the meantime, the competition has continued. An hour passes, and an announcement is made to the public.
Proudfoot: This public address announcement came saying the jury of appeal have decided that competitor Onischenko should have 22 points deducted from his fencing score at the end of the day for having a defective weapon.
I was thinking… no. He's cheating. And the penalty for cheating is disqualification.
There is no doubt to the British team—-and to Proudfoot. It’s just not possible that his weapon was merely defective —- occasionally electric wires got worn away during
the day, but it seemed far-fetched that something defective had happened in the course of the first and second bouts of the day.
As manager, it’s up to Proudfoot to do something about it.
Proudfoot: This is, this is, this is the very, very, the protest that I put in. You know, I was looking after the team and I had to sit down while they were fencing and write this out.
As he recounts these events, Proudfoot, a retired lecturer at Cambridge University in England, is at his desk in his office, holding two pieces of paper. Proudfoot filled out the pages by hand to argue that Onischenko’s faulty epee constituted deliberate cheating and that he should be disqualified.
Proudfoot: The Great Britain team asked the president to check Onischenko’s weapon, Onischenko attempted to substitute another epee held by Shmelev, who was the reserve competitor for the USSR, but the president prevented him from substituting it on examination… [fade under]
That’s Proudfoot reading from the protest, which
Details the events—including the Brits seeing the Soviet team trying to swap out Onischenko’s sword.
Proudfoot: We submit that the falsification was deliberate and Onischenko must therefore be excluded. MA Proudfoot. GBT Manager. So that was my protest.
Later in the morning, Proudfoot submitted the protest, with a $25 fee. His protest helped spur the head of International Fencing Federation to direct the jury to dismantle Onischenko’s sword.
And when they do, what they find is shocking.
Proudfoot: What they did was to dismantle his weapon completely. Onischenko had covered his grip, the grip with what you hold the weapon he had covered it with shammy leather cover. Some people do this that might make it more comfortable to hold. However, the jury of appeal, thank goodness said, wait a minute, we're going to cut away that shammy leather, so they cut it open. and
what they found then, underneath the shammy leather, was a secret button.
Onischenko had installed the button, and he simply had to press it to close the circuit, which would turn on the light no touch required.
The news ripples through the arena as the competition continues. Everyone is shocked, of course. But beyond the shock, not everyone’s reaction is the same. Adrian Parker, Onischenko’s first opponent, feels vindicated —- since Onischenko’s victories were scrubbed, Parker had his win in fencing.
But Jim Fox, the accomplished team member, feels differently.
Proudfoot: Jim Fox was extremely upset. You might’ve thought he might’ve been pleased because that was an opponent out of the way, but he was very upset. He said, I don’t understand. Why did he do it? You know, what a stupid thing to do. It’s ruined his life. It’s ruined his career. Poor old Boris.
He even thought of just
dropping out of the competition. He said, What’s it worth competing when people cheat like this? You know, I don’t know whether it’s all worthwhile.
JIM FOX COMMENT
Fox: In Olympic competition, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure —- not only in Russia but in our country as well, a lot of pressure to do well.
That’s Fox, in an interview after the competition.
I suppose he just panicked and thought he could get away with it.
Fox seems composed there, but he is clearly shaken by the events. Competing in what would be his final Olympics, Fox fences uncharacteristically poorly. He ties for 18th on the day. His individual medal chances are gone.
Officially disqualified, Onischenko’s name is removed from the scoreboards. Onischenko has claimed his innocence, but there’s nothing he can do about it now.
Farber: Inside Maurice Richard arena there was the competition office and it was manned by a fellow named Sandy Kerekes, Hungarian
born Montrealer, a man of high standards. He believed in the nobility of fencing. It was an honorable sport and he saw that sword on his desk at that point, after it had been confiscated, and sitting in his office was Onischenko himself. And he looked at Onischenko and at that moment, he saw a man as destroyed as his sword was. And in exposing the method of cheating to the world, Onischenko had bared himself to the world and he looked crestfallen.
Onischenko’s two teammates, Pavel Lednev and Boris Mosolov, are left without their strongest teammate. Their chances at gold are over.
Onischenko is ushered off the premises by the two men in trench coats
that Proudfoot had spotted entering the arena.
Onischenko is taken out of the arena, to a port, to a Soviet ship docked there. He stays there, confined.
When the Olympics began, Boris Onischenko was a champion, but one in an obscure sport—- largely an unknown name outside of it.
But that’s no longer the case. His story makes headlines everywhere.
Farber: It was so odd the New York Times, perhaps for the first time in history, ran a fencing story on A1. It's remarkable that the Soviet cheater would be front page news in the New York Times.
But this is 1976, middle of the Cold War. This played into Western hands so perfectly that it was an irresistible story. Bad East. Good West.
Soviets cheating. Honorable Western countries. It was almost too perfect.
The night after the day’s fencing events are complete, the British team is together at the Olympic Village, still trying to make sense of the events. There’s a knock at their door.
Proudfoot: I opened the door and to my surprise, there were the two other members of the Soviet team, Lednev and Mosolov. I am very surprised to see them. And I, you know, when I thought, you know, God, what are they going to do? Because they had lost the chance of getting a team gold medal because he'd been disqualified.
But Lednev and Mosolov weren’t exactly crushed.
Though they were foes in the heat of competition; away from the arena, some members of the Soviet and British teams had become friendly.
The Soviets would give the British athletes volba— salt cured fish, and in exchange Jim Fox would give the Soviets jazz records from the West.
And that night,
the Soviets confided in the British athletes. Yes, they were crushed that they’d lost their chances at gold.
But they weren’t sad for Onischenko.
Proudfoot: What they wanted to say was that they were pleased.
They were pleased that Onischenko had been disqualified.
It turns out that Onischenko’s teammates did not like Onischenko at all.
Proudfoot: They didn't like him for lots of reasons. The first reason was they said he was a KGB man. He was the lieutenant colonel in the KGB. And so he filed reports on all the other athletes after every international competition. And if the athletes had done anything out of line, they knew that they'd be reported by Onishchenko.
Now, we should say here that we don’t know for sure that Onischenko was indeed a KGB spy. We’ll never know for sure. Lednev and Mosolov described Onischenko as a lone wolf. And
they weren’t upset he was caught for another reason that had nothing to do with spying.
Proudfoot: They didn’t like him also because they thought he’d been cheating for some time.
Of course, the Onischenko affair was not the first instance of cheating at the Olympics. And it would be far from the last.
Twelve years after Montreal, at the Seoul Summer Games, Ben Johnson would smash his own world record with a run of 9.79 seconds in the 100 m dash, then fail a doping test that would be widely considered as the biggest scandal in Olympic history. His positive drug test then was shocking, but in the years after, doping scandals would become a regular occurrence.
Farber: When discussing Olympic cheating, the default is Ben Johnson, right? 9-7-9, in Seoul in a race in which six of the eight men in those hundred meters later were shown to have been doping.
Because that's such a glamour event, we immediately flip to that. Well, doping has become if not commonplace, it's become widespread that there seems to be nothing remarkable about doping. It's just getting on a doping regimen, finding the cycle and covering up your tracks.
Farber says that Onischenko’s scheme was very different.
Farber: Well, this required, if not a degree in electric engineering, at least some knowledge of it required some real work. This was remarkable, really. The ingenuity, the creativity, the artistry. This was great, next level, cheating. Dopers, they're playing checkers. Onischenko, he was playing chess.
Onischenko’s scam stands out
not just because it doesn’t involve PEDs. It stands out in its audaciousness and complexity. The complexity of it begs a question: did he have help? Did he act alone?
Proudfoot: I wondered who else was in on it. Did the team manager, did the coaches of the USSR team, did they know about it? Did they help him? Did somebody help him to engineer the weapon?
Speculation around a wider conspiracy was inevitable, given the recent history of cheating — or at least very questionable rulings — that benefitted the Soviets at the Olympics leading up to 1976.
In 1968, a Soviet gymnast’s scores were retroactively boosted so that she would be tied for gold. In 1972, the Soviet basketball team was inexplicably given three chances to win against the US in the men’s basketball gold medal game—a subject we explored in a previous episode.
More recent instances of Russian doping in the Olympics only adds to the cheating connection.
Proudfoot: Given the way the USSR now the Russians operate and we know that they have a record of quite significant and complicated cheating in sport. I mean, you've got to be honest about that, that behavior of the Russian Olympic team and the recent Olympic games has been shocking in terms of cheating with urine samples and blood samples.
It would have been odd if Onischenko had a weapon like this and the others didn’t. You’d have thought either it was a team thing or it was an individual thing. He may have had help from somebody. But I don't think that somebody was somebody there at the Olympics.
I think this was an individual thing.
After his reporting, Farber agrees.
Farber: Was there a conspiracy? I don't believe so. And no one believes it involved the Soviet team itself. Might Onischenko have had help from a coach? That came up in some
interviews. Nothing we could prove we don't have a name. But was this a greater Soviet conspiracy? I wouldn’t believe it for a minute.
But that doesn’t mean that Onischenko wasn’t under immense pressure to win.
In fact, all Soviet Olympians were during this time. For the Soviet Union, the stakes at the Olympics were higher.
Farber: Starting in the 1960s, sports was a form of soft power in the Soviet Union. It was a way to show the viability of the country, the strength of the country, and to do it without raising a gun or a sword, in Onischenko’s case. It was important for internal morale of the country. It was going through some deprivations, but it was also important externally to show the Soviet Union’s might.
The Olympics, of course, were the global
meeting place. It had the attention of the whole world.
And to this day, the Olympics has meant so much to now Russia and then the Soviet Union, that we've seen state sponsored cheating
So was Onishenko part of state sponsored cheating? No, because he was a lone wolf as far as we can tell. But it falls under the wider umbrella of doing what you perceive to be necessary through sport to get ahead.
The pressures were higher in the Soviet Union to win. So were the rewards of winning. Proudfoot, who befriended many Soviets during his years as both a pentathlete and a manager, saw this up close.
Proudfoot: To be an international sportsman in the USSR for any, in any sport, was a very, very prized achievement.
I don't know exactly what the situation was in terms of direct financial reward, but, I would be pretty certain there was direct financial reward. But certainly forever, for the rest of your life, you would be celebrated and have a comfortable life and you could get a good position.
The world modern pentathlon champion in the 1950s, he was called Igor Novikov. I got quite friendly with Novikoff. He became minister of sport in Armenia and as minister of sport, he had his own chauffeur-driven car and a magnificent house and all sorts of things. So you could have a comfortable life.
The chauffeur-driven car, the magnificent house—-after Montreal, those were out of reach not just for Onischenko, but for his teammates, too— Pavel Lednev and Boris Mosolov, were in position to return to the Soviet Union with gold medals in the team competition
but would return empty handed.
Lednev died in 2010, but while reporting his story, Farber tracked down Mosolov in Moscow. Mosolov was the youngest of the three Soviet pentathletes, but would never win a medal, nor would he compete in another Olympics.
Farber: Mosolov was very unhappy, because this was his chance to win a team gold medal. Onischenko ended that chance. And he has never forgiven him. He’s not forgotten. The selfish behavior of Onischenko essentially made him financially poorer, because he did not get the honors that were going to Olympic gold medalists at that time. In a modern context, he was stealing money, he was taking money out of Mosolov’s pockets.
did the math himself: he and Lednev had competed so well during the rest of the modern pentathlon event that they would have won team gold even if Onischenko had performed poorly—- very poorly.
Farber: Even if Onischenko had finished in the mid 30s, the Soviets would have won the gold medal and their lives, at least in an economic sense, in a practical sense, would have been better happier lives.
Mosolov told Farber that he believed that Onischenko was motivated to cheat after he failed to make the Soviet team a year earlier, for the 1975 world championships. Onischenko may have even tried out a rigged weapon at a meet earlier that year, in 1976, in London. And Mosolov wasn’t the only one who had their suspicions about Onischenko.
Some members of the British team did, too.
Proudfoot, for one, was so interested in the
Soviets that he recorded that event in London. When they reviewed videotape of the event, they could see Onischenko doing peculiar things, like possibly trying to get his epee to register a hit when he hit the floor with his sword.
Proudfoot: I wouldn't say we thought he cheated. I wouldn't say that, but the way he fenced, I have to say it was pretty, a pretty sneaky way.
Proudfoot: What I'm saying is people didn't much like fencing Onischenko because not only was he a very good fencer, but he had a kind of unorthodox ways of trying to get hits, which, some of which were, let's say borderline legal.
Mosolov told Farber that Onischenko’s motivations may have been deeper. He wondered if Onischenko began thinking of his scheme years before 1976.
Farber: Mosolov believes the seeds for the cheating might have been planted as early as 1972. At that time Onishenko was part of the Soviet gold
medal modern pentathlon team. He’s a gold medalist. Another gold medalist from the same city Kiev was Valery Borzof, who won glamour events in Munich - the 100 and 200. And Onischenko didn’t get the same attention. And Mosolov believed that Onischenko was jealous that he wanted to be as famous in his hometown as Borzof was.
Mosolov has not forgiven Onischenko. But one person who was in Montreal forgave him a long time ago. Jim Fox.
Fox told members of the British team that he could understand that Onischenko was under pressure to perform.
Proudfoot: He remained depressed for the next couple of days. He was an individual contender for an individual medal, but the riding didn’t go the way he wanted and he didn’t fence anything like as well as he should. He was just brooding, on this
upset to his old mate, Boris.
But Fox couldn’t brood long. It almost seems like an afterthought now, but the modern pentathlon competition in Montreal did continue after July 19. Fox and his team’s chances at team gold, unlike the Soviets’, were still alive.
After the events of the second day, Proudfoot took a shaken Fox aside.
Proudfoot: I said to Jim, look, look up, look up the statistics, look at the figures. We have a chance of a medal. We have a very good chance of at least a bronze medal, and we have an outside chance of a gold medal and we can't give this chance up.
In the swimming round of the competition, Fox, then 35 years old, and competing in his last Olympics, completed a lifetime best swim. Three days after the scandal, Fox, Adrian Parker, and their teammate Danny Nightengale took the team gold medal.
There were no mixed
emotions about their achievement in Montreal.
Proudfoot: We recognize the fact that if Onischenko hadn't been disqualified, the Russians would certainly have beaten us. I think there's no way around it.
Some people will say, okay, you only won a gold medal because the Russians were disqualified. But that wasn't really part of our feeling. We felt that we had won because we had produced an amazing effort, which people hadn't realized we would do. So it was all the more gratifying.
As for their old foe… Proudfoot and his teammates tracked every bit of news and rumor they could on Onischenko. There wasn’t much. There were unsubstantiated accounts of what happened to Onischenko once he returned to Moscow. There was a rumor that he’d been personally dressed down by Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev and stripped of his rank. There were even rumors that he had been found dead in a pool.
The truth was much less salacious. For starters,
Onischenko didn’t kill himself. And he didn’t exactly disappear. A radio segment on Onischenko in 2000 in the Ukraine reported that he was teaching fencing in Kiev. And that he had asked the correspondent about his old foe, Jim Fox.
Farber: We don't know much about Onischenko’s life. We do know that he was working as an administrator in a stadium in Ukraine. We do know that he was never jailed or anything else, that he went about and lived his life. And it was not the life perhaps that he expected, or wanted, but at a world junior modern pentathlon championship, he showed up in the crowd one day and he went about his business.
After all these years, there are still many unanswered questions. We’ll probably never know if Onischenko had an accomplice.
Or if Montreal was the first time Onischenko had ever used a doctored sword.
Onischenko has not spoken publicly since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and enjoys his privacy. We made several attempts to dig up contact information for Boris, but we were unable to find a direct line by the time this episode aired.
However, last year, while working on his story, Michael Farber, enlisted the help of a reporter based in Moscow to track Onischenko down. They got a phone number. A Ukrainian number. The reporter made the call but it was unanswered.
Then she got a call back.
Farber: On February 25th, 2021, Onischenko returns a call from a Western journalist based in Moscow who had called for an interview. And he declined. The conversation took 40 seconds.
And during those 40 seconds, the
journalist asked him: Why don't you want to do this? Is it too painful?
And he said, Well, it's painful for me. And it might be painful for you to hear. I'm not comfortable talking about all I've done— both bad and good. And therefore I won't cooperate with you.
With those words, he hung up.
He spoke in Russian. He was polite, but he didn’t waver.
How he cheated, why he cheated, Boris Onischenko would take to his grave.
TORCHED is a production of FilmNation Entertainment in association with Gilded Audio.
It’s executive produced by me -- Molly Bloom, Alyssa Martino, Milan Popelka,
Andy Chugg, and Whitney Donaldson. This episode was produced by Jenner Pasqua and Nicki Stein. It was written by Albert Chen. Technical direction and engineering by Nick Dooley. Original music by James Lavino.
Special thanks to Alison Cohen, Matt Aizenstadt and Omar Tarbush.
Molly: Next time on Torched, we learn about a group of gay athletes in the early 80s who organized their own international sports competition and shook up the status quo – despite being met with opposition from one of the biggest sports governing bodies in the world.
Gino: The USOC never challenged the use of the word “Olympic'' for anybody else. Police Olympics, whatever. There were all these other Olympics and the USOC never challenged it. Yet, when the gay one came along, oh, there was this challenge.
Molly: That’s next time on Torched.
Thanks for listening to Torched. If you’re enjoying the show, please leave a review on your favorite podcast app. It really helps us find new listeners.
And we’ll see you next week.