Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that SafeSport is funded by Congress. It is not federally funded.
When Alen Hadzic got the green light to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, USA Fencing administrators decided they had to do something to protect the women on the U.S. fencing team.
After Hadzic qualified in May, three female fencers accused him of sexual misconduct for incidents they claimed occurred between 2013 and 2015, filing their complaints with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the nonprofit tasked with investigating incidents of sexual harassment and assault within athletic organizations affiliated with the Olympics. SafeSport temporarily suspended Hadzic on June 2. Nearly four weeks later, Hadzic, who denies all allegations against him, appealed the suspension and won, just in time to secure his spot on the Olympic roster.
While USA Fencing could not stop Hadzic from competing in the Olympics — that authority lies solely with SafeSport — it could institute restrictions to keep team members safe. On July 13, five days before Hadzic flew to Tokyo, USA Fencing informed him of a “safety plan" designed to distance him from the rest of the team. In a letter to Hadzic, reviewed by The Lily, USA Fencing laid out the plan’s terms: He would sleep in an off-campus hotel 25 minutes away from the Olympic Village and travel on a separate plane and shuttle bus. Additionally, “efforts were made” to create a training schedule that would minimize Hadzic’s contact with certain team members, a spokeswoman for USA Fencing said in a statement to The Lily. This way, she added, the organization would “protect the well-being of all team members.”
But nine members of the Olympic fencing team and training partners who traveled with them say the safety plan did not go far enough and was not communicated to them until days after they arrived in Tokyo. Hadzic was in proximity to female team members every day, they said, sometimes showing up where no one expected him to be. His presence was distracting and, at times, deeply unsettling, as female fencers feared for their safety and the safety of Olympians who did not recognize Hadzic or know the history of allegations against him.
Women on the fencing team, many of whom had spoken out against Hadzic, learned about the safety plan through “word of mouth," according to seven female fencers. The team members were left to find out the details on their own, said Olympic fencer Jackie Dubrovich. Despite the safety plan, a female training partner who traveled with the U.S. team, Isis Washington, was assigned a room in the same hotel as Hadzic, down the hallway from where he was staying. No one from USA Fencing ever told her, Washington said.
“Why was he the one who was told, and not all the other athletes?” Dubrovich asked. “It’s not my responsibility to have to seek this information out.”
USA Fencing is “aware that concerns have been raised” about the safety plan, the organization said in a statement. “The safety and well-being of USA Fencing members is our top priority and we will encourage an open dialogue with team members regarding ways in which communication can be improved in the future.”
After scores of female gymnasts accused sports therapist Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) overhauled the systems in place for responding to allegations of sexual abuse within elite athletics, granting SafeSport full jurisdiction over cases like Hadzic’s. And while SafeSport has resolved thousands of cases since the organization was created in 2017, a string of high-profile allegations across several sports have left many skeptical of the new process that is supposed to keep athletes safe.
When U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman testified about Nassar before the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, she sharply criticized SafeSport. “They’ll say we can’t help you, they’ll either ignore us or pass it to someone else,” Raisman said. “It’s just a complete mess and the priority doesn’t seem to be the safety and well-being of athletes.”
Female members of the U.S. fencing team blame both SafeSport and USA Fencing for Hadzic’s proximity to athletes in Tokyo. It was “really shocking” to learn that the suspension had been lifted, said Dubrovich, who was one of several women on the team who described his conduct in interviews with SafeSport. As a student and fencer at Columbia University, he would seek out the most intoxicated women at parties and try to have sex with them, said Dubrovich and Olympic training partner Dwight Smith, who both attended college with Hadzic. In 2013, he was suspended from Columbia for a year for a “nonconsensual sexual incident,” said Michael Palma, Hadzic’s lawyer.
"I just felt there was such an overwhelming amount of evidence to support that he should not be on the Olympic team,” Dubrovich said.
In an interview, Hadzic denied all three of the sexual misconduct allegations filed with SafeSport, including the incident that led to his suspension from Columbia, emphasizing that an independent arbiter ruled in his favor and struck down his SafeSport suspension. “When you are at the pinnacle of your sport, people want to bring you down,” said Hadzic, who traveled to Tokyo as an alternate. “This is the first time in my entire life I’m hearing about me being a violent predator. That’s not who I am.” Palma has criticized the SafeSport process, claiming that the organization suspended Hadzic with little evidence and no advance notice.
SafeSport declined a request for comment to “protect the integrity of the process.”
Hadzic’s suspension — and the appeal that allowed him to travel to Tokyo — shows how complicated cases of sexual assault within athletics can be. Organizations such as SafeSport and USA Fencing are tasked with protecting both the rights of a competitor facing unresolved accusations and the rights of teammates who have voiced fears for their physical and mental well-being. While no reports of sexual misconduct were filed against Hadzic during the Olympics, his daily presence nearby left many female fencers rattled at the most important competition of their athletic careers, said a Team USA official affiliated with the team and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she works closely with the USOPC. Much of that emotional trauma could have been avoided, she added.
“When you fear that something might happen to you, that perceived danger is enough in and of itself."
Throughout much of the Olympics, Dubrovich said, she struggled to think about anything else.
“I felt very vulnerable,” she said. “We were not protected.”
A few days before the first fencers left for Tokyo, USA Fencing administrator Kate Reisinger had called everyone together on Zoom, said Courtney Hurley, a fencer on the Olympic team. She went over what they should expect at the Olympics, including travel logistics, coronavirus protocols and advice for speaking to the media. As the meeting went on, female members of the team started texting each other in a group chat, Hurley said.
“We were like, ‘Are they ever going to mention it?’”
In a meeting that took over an hour, Hurley said, Hadzic’s name was not mentioned once. Women on the team didn’t feel comfortable raising the issue, she said.
Members of the fencing team were not told about the safety plan until several days into their stay in Tokyo, according to seven fencers who traveled to the Olympics. (Reisinger did not respond to a request for comment.)
SafeSport and USA Fencing might have handled Hadzic’s case differently if they had more time, said the Team USA official who worked with the fencing team. Everything happened on an extremely tight timeline: Hadzic qualified for the Olympics on May 7. Three days later, SafeSport was fielding allegations against him, with the Olympic Games scheduled to begin in less than three months. Within a period of eight weeks, Hadzic was suspended, released from his suspension and notified of the safety plan, which he would go on to challenge in a second arbitration during his stay in Tokyo.
As soon as Hadzic’s SafeSport suspension was lifted on June 28, USA Fencing started scrambling to institute protocols that would protect the team in Tokyo, according to the Team USA official affiliated with the team. They didn’t have long: The first members of the Olympic team flew out on July 11, she said. Officials didn’t communicate the plan to the team because they were busy trying to determine how many protections they could legally offer without infringing on Hadzic’s rights, she said, now that SafeSport had allowed him to compete.
“I hate to say it,” she added, “but it probably fell through the cracks.”
“Athlete safety and wellness is our primary concern, and we strive to create the safest training and competition environments possible for Team USA athletes,” the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee wrote in a statement to The Lily. “This allegation, like all other allegations of sexual misconduct involving Team USA athletes and staff, has been handled exclusively by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.”
Members of the fencing team learned about the safety plan for the first time on July 21, two days before the Opening Ceremonies, when Reisinger called an impromptu Zoom meeting. Hadzic had filed a Section 9 complaint against the U.S. Fencing Association and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, team members say Reisinger told them, a grievance athletes can file if they feel they’ve been unfairly denied the opportunity to participate in a competition. With the safety plan in place, Hadzic claimed he was being denied the full Olympic experience, including lodging in the Olympic Village, said Palma, Hadzic’s lawyer.
On that call, Dubrovich said, Reisinger briefly outlined some of the terms of the safety plan, which was ultimately upheld the next day, including Hadzic’s placement in an off-campus hotel and efforts to schedule his training sessions at times that did not overlap with female team members. Administrators never mentioned that Hadzic would have access to the village, Dubrovich said. The alternates and training partners, including Washington, say they were not invited to take part in the call.
By that point, some athletes traveling with the team had taken matters into their own hands, conducting research into Hadzic’s whereabouts. Washington had combed through a shared Google Drive file that included itineraries for members of the team, she said — and learned that Hadzic was staying in her hotel, 25 minutes outside of the Olympic Village, even though he’d been deemed a risk to female athletes staying inside the village. She texted Reisinger to ask if there was any "separate protocol” in place that she should know about.
“I just want to clarify because it hasn’t been addressed yet,” Washington wrote in a text shared with The Lily.
“No protocols,” Reisinger responded. “He’s just staying outside of the village.”
Washington was so confused that she never responded, she said.
“We didn’t get that protection,” said Washington, who stayed in Hadzic’s hotel along with one other female training partner and several male training partners. “What about the actual safety aspect? I’m somebody who openly spoke out against Alen and he knows it.”
The women on the fencing team saw Hadzic every day, said Hurley, despite a safety plan that was designed to keep them apart. At the training center, he was always around, several women said: sitting on the sidelines or working out in the weight room. At one practice, Dubrovich said, Hadzic started fencing right next to her. She was so distracted and uncomfortable that her coach noticed, she said, and she had to pause to regroup.
Once Hadzic tried, and failed, to challenge the safety plan, six female members of the team and training partners say they were under the impression that he was not allowed in the Olympic Village. They were “completely shocked,” Dubrovich said, when they saw him pass through the security checkpoint and walk inside.
A few female fencers sent a photo of him to Reisinger, expecting her to take action. Instead, in texts reviewed by The Lily, Reisinger notified them that Hadzic was not violating any rules. He was allowed in the village, she said. He just wasn’t allowed in the building that housed Team USA.
Later that day, the women on the team adopted additional safety protocols of their own, said Nicole Ross, a veteran fencer on the team: locking their doors, scanning hallways and walkways wherever they went. The buildings within the Olympic Village had no security, several fencers recalled. Once inside, Hadzic was free to roam.
On July 21, when Dubrovich learned that Hadzic was disputing the safety plan — requesting to be moved from his hotel to the Olympic Village — she was sitting on the lawn outside the Team USA building, relaxing with a few other members of the team. Ross joined the last-minute Zoom meeting on her cellphone, and everyone gathered around.
Sara Pflipsen, senior counsel with the U.S. Olympic Committee, explained that there would be an arbitration the following evening to decide whether Hadzic would be allowed to sleep in the Olympic Village, less than 48 hours before the first fencing competition. Reisinger and Pflipsen apologized for the inconvenience and distraction, several fencers recall, emphasizing that team members did not have to participate in the hearing. A lawyer affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee would be there to represent them. (Pflipsen did not respond to a request for comment.)
Several female fencers immediately voiced concerns, Hurley said. The stakes seemed clear, she said: If no one directly affected by Hadzic’s presence spoke up, he’d be more likely to win.
“The onus is on us to defend the safety plan," Ross remembers saying on the call. “The outcome might be different if we aren’t involved."
Kat Holmes, another Olympic fencer, was asked to draft a letter on behalf of the team. If Hadzic was allowed to stay in the village, she wrote, the team would feel “extremely unsafe.” “While we need to focus on competing,” the letter continued, “we do not want our voices to be silenced as a result of timing and circumstance.”
Hadzic challenged the safety plan because it was unfair, he said, based on allegations that weren’t true. With the safety plan in place, he said, he couldn’t enjoy the Olympics he’d earned the right to compete in. “I was an outcast. I was completely ostracized.”
Holmes, who was scheduled to compete on the morning of July 24, read the letter at the arbitration on the night of July 22, submitting to cross-examination by Hadzic’s lawyer.
The judge immediately ruled to uphold the safety plan.
Still, Hurley said, the arbitration took a major toll on the team, and especially Holmes, who was among the first fencers to compete. She was supposed to be focused on the event she’d spent years training for.
That night, Holmes returned to her bedroom in tears.
Some women on the fencing team say they are disappointed with their performance in Tokyo. They came back with two medals, fewer than they’d been hoping for. Hadzic, an alternate, never actually competed.
Fencing requires intense concentration and a sense of “inner calm,” Ross said. And while she believes in her ability to perform under even the most difficult circumstances, she said, “it’s impossible to ignore the onus that was put on us as athletes at these Games.”
The next major fencing competition is in October. Hurley said she wouldn’t be surprised to see Hadzic there.
“It just seems like everything has failed to protect female athletes up until this point, so why wouldn’t that continue?” said Kelley Hurley, another Olympic fencer and Courtney’s sister. “I’ve heard nothing to make me feel like that will change.”
Now that the Olympics are over, everyone on the team is waiting for the results of the SafeSport investigation, which has been pending since early May. There doesn’t seem to be much momentum behind it, said the Team USA official. She asked the organization to contact her for her interview after she returned from the Olympics, she said.
After three weeks at home, she said, she was tired of waiting for SafeSport to email her — so she typed out a message and emailed them.