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Did an Olympic pentathlete cheat during the 1976 Summer Games?

June 20, 2012|By Brian Cronin

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: An Olympic athlete used a specially rigged epee to fake results during a pentathlon.

Today's legend reminds me of the long-running crime series, "Columbo." The series was set up so that the beginning of each episode would show us the criminals seemingly pull off a "perfect murder" and then the rest of the show would bring in the seemingly ineffectual Lt. Columbo, who would solve the murder while we see the murderer du jour (almost always a well known actor or actress) go from confident (and almost always looking down their noses at Columbo) to, well, arrested for murder with an airtight case against them.

A good deal of the episodes involved the murderers putting together some sort of convoluted contraption that would help them achieve their crime and by the end of the episode, the contraption often ended up as part of the airtight proof against the murderer. As time went by, it amused me to see these murderers continue to think that they could cobble together something to rival James Bond's famous gadgets ("It is a pen that is really a bomb!") without it backfiring on them. Then again, in the case of one of the most shocking Olympic cheating scandals of all-time, that it just what one Olympian tried to do - use a contraption to get away with the "perfect crime." Only just like Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy and their ilk on "Columbo," it backfired spectacularly.

The modern pentathlon consists of five events: pistol shooting, fencing, 200-meter freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3-kilomete cross-country run.

Boris Onischenko of the Soviet Union entered the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal as a three-time medalist in the modern pentathlon. He won a silver medal in 1968 as part of the Soviet Union team (for the team pentathlon). In 1972, the Soviet team picked up the gold medal while Onischenko netted himself a silver medal, as well (for the individual pentathlon). Interestingly, in 1968, the pentathlon saw the first disqualification in Olympic history for performance enhancing drugs, as a Swedish pentathlete was disqualified for drinking two beers to calm his nerves before the pistol shooting part of the pentathlon (read more about it in this edition of Olympic Urban Legends Revealed).

Onischenko was a Soviet army officer who was well respected in the pentathlon world, particularly for his skills in fencing. After the first event of the 1976 team pentathlon, the Soviet Union team was fourth, just behind Great Britain. The next event was fencing. It was a round robin tournament where each team member would face each other. The first hit would win each round (you would get a point bonus if you won 70% of your matches).

Early on, the Soviets were matched up against the British team. Onischenko easily dispatched his first British opponent, Danny Nightingale. He was next paired up with British team member Adrian Parker. British team captain Jim Fox thought that he saw Onischenko score a point without actually touching Parker. You see, with electric épée fencing, scoring is done in the following manner: the tip of the épée has a push button on it with wiring that, when combined with the wiring on the body cord and box of the opponent, would form a circuit (you would have to hit it with the force of 7.35 newtons and hold it for 1.1 milliseconds to form the circuit). It would then signal that a hit has occurred. Well, what Onischenko had done was to rig his épée so that he could close the circuit himself. He would press down on a pressure pad hidden in the grip of his épée whenever he would appear as though he got close enough to an opponent to register a hit and it would count as a hit. The British team argued about the errant hit on Parker and the officials investigated the piste (the playing area in fencing). While pistes are supposed to be grounded during electric épée fencing so that you can't register a hit by accidentally hitting the piste with your épée, I suppose it could be possible. In any event, the officials judged that that was not what had happened.

They did not inspect Onischenko's épée, though. The tournament continued (Onischenko had now won his first four matches). Fox was next to face Onischenko. Onischenko continued his trick and Fox went to the judges to ask them to confiscate Onischenko's épée. They did so but the match continued, with Onischenko using a unmodified épée. As noted before, the odd part was that Onischenko was the best fencer there, and he defeated Fox with the unmodified épée.

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