120 years, 120 stories (Part 22) : Boris Onischenko caught red handed while cheating

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When Boris Onischenko, an army officer from Ukraine, entered the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he was already one of the modern pentathlon’s star athletes.

Apart from being a member of the Russian winning team in 1972 Olympics, where he was an individual silver medallist Boris Onischenko was also a three time world champion. It was very likely that he would leave Montreal, which was to be his last Olympics with a medal too. However he entered the history books as the person to be involved in the most infamous case of sporting skulduggery when he was caught cheating in the fencing event by putting an electrical device in his épée.

Modern Pentathlon

The modern pentathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics was represented by two events: Individual competition and Team competition. As usual in Olympic modern pentathlon, one competition was held and each competitor’s score was included to the Individual competition event results table and was also added to his teammates’ scores to be included to the Team competition event results table.

This competition consisted of 5 disciplines:

  1. Equestrian, 2Fencing, 3. Shooting, 4. Swimming, 5Cross-country

In this part of the pentathlon, every athlete played each of the others in a round-robin competition, in what added up to 46 matches spread over a period of 12 hours. Each lasted three minutes, or until one of the contestants registered a hit, with an electronic scoreboard programmed to automatically detect when either blade found its mark.

Onischenko in 1976 Olympics:

It had been rumoured that Eastern Bloc fencers used to earn extra money trafficking caviar, vodka and Cuban cigars across the border in their fencing bags. On their way back the bags would be full of instant coffee, nylon stockings and hard currency which were sold in their countries at huge profit. It is said that the fencers even sold their fencing kits to the West to make more gold. And this is what i supposed to have motivated Boris Onischenko in Montreal, where winning a medal was to be something of a secondary achievement.

After the equestrian events, the Russian team were at the fourth position, with their best disciplines yet to come. Boris Onischenko began the second day’s fencing in a thrilling fashion to keep the Russians in the run for a medal.  The Russians had to face the Britons, who went on to win the gold medal early in the day. Onischenko beat Danny Nightingale without breaking much sweat. The win did not raise eyebrowss as Onischenko was known to be a renowned fencer and was tipped to win.

In the next match against Adrian Parker, the suspicions of British team manager Mike Proudfoot were raised when he scored a hit which could not be managed. The officials were called in to look into the equipment, who found nothing and awarded a hit. Onischenko won the first four matches and was well in course to get a 1000 point bonus which was achieved if the athlete won 70% of his matches.

Onischenko’s fifth match was against Jim Fox, who was also a military man and had been competing against him over the last two decades. During the match, as Onischenko lunged to make a hit, Fox succesfully managed to evade the blade. However to his surprise a hit was given. Fox exclaims, “It was like waving a magic wand.” Fox who had watched the fight against Parker earlier in the day realised something was wrong. Onischenko admitted he had not hit and wanted to change the equipment, but Fox was not someone to let go. He said that he thought the weapon to be faulty and checked so that it may not be used again.

The judges while experimenting the épée carefully discovered buried in the handle behind a layer of leather, a complex wiring system which, when a pressure pad was depressed, automatically told the sensors that a hit had been scored. The team manager Proudfoot said, “It was a real engineering job. Not just a ham amateur’s effort. They had to dismantle the weapon to discover it.”

Onischenko was immediately disqualified from the Olympics which forced the Soviet Union to scratch from the team event. At the appeal Onischenko claimed that the equipment was not his own, but the jury was not satisfied with the explanation.

The British team went on to win the gold medal, while Boris earned the label of ‘Disonischenko‘ in the press and the enmity of the Soviet team. The USSR volleyball team reportedly threatened to throw him out of the hotel’s window if they met him.  He was escorted from the athletes’ village by Soviet officials the night of his disqualification and reported to be back in his home town of Kiev the next day. Two months later it was reported that he had been called before Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev for a personal scolding, and was dismissed from the Red Army, fined 5,000 rubles, and stripped of all his sporting honours. He was known to work as a taxi driver in Kiev. Nothing has been heard of him since.

 

The irony is that Boris Onischenko may well have won without the extra electrics. Even without cheating, wherever there is professionalism there is victory.

Photo by National Media Museum

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