With War as a Backdrop, a Russian Fencing Drama Plays Out in the U.S.

Fencing is usually among the least visible Olympic events, but a year out from the Paris Games it is providing political, sporting and familial drama related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Three Russian fencers who renounced the 2022 invasion in written declarations and now live in the United States were granted eligibility to compete as neutral athletes, representing no country, in the American summer national championships that conclude Sunday in Phoenix.

And that’s just the beginning of the drama. A top Russian coach has been fired after a star épée couple left three weeks ago for the United States. And a high-profile fencing divorce has touched the upper reaches of the Russian Olympic Committee and even led to the entry of “raspberry frappé” into the lexicon as a sword-fighting put-down.

One of the Russian fencers now training and coaching in San Diego, Konstantin Lokhanov, 24, is a former son-in-law of the president of Russia’s Olympic Committee and the ex-husband of a two-time Russian Olympic fencing gold medalist. He won the men’s saber competition at the American summer championships after having competed for Russia at the 2021 Tokyo Games.

After winning in Phoenix, the 6-foot-5 Lokhanov posed with a Ukrainian fencer while the two held a Ukrainian flag in a defiant show of support. Lokhanov had the word “liberty” tattooed on his right forearm shortly after he arrived in the United States in May 2022.

The invasion represented a jarring turn in the personal and professional life of Lokhanov, who had married into the first family of Russian fencing and seemed embedded in a life of athletic royalty.

In 2020, Lokhanov married Sofia Pozdnyakova, 26, who later won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s individual and team saber events. She is the daughter of Stanislav Pozdnyakov, 49, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee and himself a four-time Olympic gold medalist in fencing.

But the marriage quickly dissolved, and the breakup became public last September. Lokhanov said the divorce had occurred for several reasons, the ultimate one being the war. “I just said that I will not go back to Russia,” Lokhanov said in a Zoom interview from Phoenix, which he called his first in English. In follow-up written remarks, he added, “I decided I could no longer live in a country that kills innocent Ukrainians.”

Both Lokhanov and Pozdynakova have said that she declined his invitation to leave Russia with him. She has said that she filed for divorce and that she was grateful to Lokhanov for many things but that the couple had gone in “different directions.”

Pozdnyakov, the Russian Olympic chief — speaking to Match TV, a sports channel owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy corporation — confirmed the dissolution of his daughter’s marriage. With an apparent swipe at Western frivolousness, he told Match TV last September that his daughter’s upbringing and “love for the motherland” had allowed her to avoid “the sad fate of frightened lovers of raspberry frappé and yellow scooters.”

Lokhanov said he thought the remark was funny and unsurprising, even if he was not quite sure why it had been made. “I never had a scooter,” he said with a smile. “I’m a big coffee lover, but not frappé.”

In an Instagram post last December, Lokhanov said that he had entered a “truly black period” after his mother died of Covid-19 at age 43 at the end of 2021. After finishing a disappointing 24th in the saber competition at the Tokyo Olympics, he also faced the second of two surgeries in Germany for a hip injury that threatened his fencing career.

He flew to Munich for the second surgery on Feb. 23, 2022. A day later, Russia invaded Ukraine. During weeks of recovery in Germany, Lokhanov contemplated whether he should return to Russia. Instead, he flew to Atlanta in May 2022 to stay with a friend and then received an invitation to join a fencing club in San Diego.

He said he did not consider himself brave, only to have made a natural decision he does not regret. To remain in Russia, he said, “You need to forget that killing other people is bad.”

When the invasion began, “everything split into black and white” for him, Lokhanov said, adding: “When I hear that everything is not clear, what is not clear? It’s as clear as possible. To kill other people is bad.”

Another Russian fencer now in the United States, Sergey Bida, 30, won gold in the team épée event at the American championships, two years after winning a silver medal for Russia in the same event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

“American athletes go to Russia and end up in prison,” Jack Wiener, a New York lawyer who represents Lokhanov and Bida, said, referring to the basketball star Brittney Griner. “Russian fencers come to the U.S. and wake up with gold medals.”

A third Russian, Oleg Knysh, 25, also competed in the American championships.

Among fencing powers, Russia and the former Soviet Union trail only Italy, France and Hungary in winning Olympic medals. So embarrassing was the departure last month of épée stars like Bida and his wife, Violetta Kraphina Bida, also a Tokyo Olympian, that Russia has fired its national épée team coach, according to Tass, the state news agency. (Kraphina Bida did not compete in the United States championships.)

The highly regarded coach, Alexander Glazunov, was dismissed “due to the flight of his athletes to the United States without the consent” of the Russian Fencing Federation, Tass reported on July 1.

International federations for some sports, including fencing, have begun granting eligibility to athletes from Russia and Belarus — a close Russian ally that provided a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine — to compete as neutrals without national symbols, following a path created by the International Olympic Committee.

That path is expected to extend to the Paris Games. If so, athletes from the two countries could potentially compete if they have not publicly endorsed the Russian invasion and are not affiliated with the Russian military or state security agencies.

But Lokhanov and Sergey Bida have given up a great deal in leaving Russia, including perhaps their immediate Olympic dreams. They are not American citizens, so they are not eligible to compete for the United States at the world fencing championships, which begin July 22 in Milan. And without extraordinary government intervention, it is a long shot that they will gain American citizenship before the Paris Olympics.

There appears to be zero chance that Russia would welcome them back. Lokhanov said he had no desire to compete for Russia again. The best options for him and Bida, according to Wiener, their lawyer, appear to be finding a third country that will grant them citizenship for the Paris Games or seeking to compete for the Refugee Olympic Team.

Or, Lokhanov said, perhaps he can defer his dream and compete in the 2028 Olympics up Interstate 5 from San Diego in Los Angeles.

“I dream about to go for the Olympics, driving my own car,” he said.

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