Jacob Hoyle of Team United States, left, and Curtis McDowald of Team United States are seek in pink masks after their loss to Team Japan in Men’s Épée Team Table of 16 on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Makuhari Messe Hall on July 30, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

When images of the men’s U.S. Olympic epee team were seen around the world Friday, at their opening match against Japan, Montclair High School graduate and team alternate Alen Hadzic stood out.

Hadzic was wearing a black face mask. Fellow fencers Jake Hoyle, Curtis McDowald and Yeisser Ramirez were in pink — in apparent protest to Hadzic’s presence despite an ongoing investigation into three allegations of sexual misconduct currently under investigation by the U.S. Center for Safesport.

It’s a measure Jackie Dubrovich, also a 2021 Olympic fencer from New Jersey, called “performative activism” on Instagram.

“None of the reporters filing fawning pieces about the pink masks have reported who among the community — administrators, coaches or even teammates — knew about Alen’s behavior and enabled him,” she wrote. “Who turned a blind eye? Who cooperated with the investigation and who stymied it? Who lied on his behalf? Who privately derided and undermined the people who spoke out against him?

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“I hope that we don’t get too caught up in the warm and fuzzies of symbolic gestures that we forget to ask these questions.”

Hadzic, 29, who has denied the allegations, told USA Today he confronted teammates who “never asked me for my side of the story.” He said he and the other fencers were waiting to be introduced before the match against Japan when McDowald handed out masks — giving Hadzic the black one, and the other fencers pink ones. He said he hadn’t realized what was happening until he saw photos afterward.

Hadzic told USA Today he told Hoyle he was “embarrassed to stand up there with him,” and saying he “chewed out” Ramirez over the matter. He said he couldn’t track down McDowald.

It’s a protest many in the fencing and community and beyond welcomed, even as they called for greater protections for the fencers in Tokyo and more accountability around the allegations against Hadzic. Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 2016 Olympic Fencer, on Twitter offered “Kudos to the team for taking a stand.”

The allegations against Hadzic are under review by the SafeSport, the body charged with investigating reports of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee — as Montclair Local first reported in early June. Hadzic has not been criminally charged with any sexual offense, and Hadzic’s lawyer has told Montclair Local his client has never been accused of rape.

But Hadzic had acknowledged to USA Today previously one of the allegations involves the same incident that resulted in his suspension from Columbia University in 2013, after a Title IX inquiry. Michael Palma, the attorney, has also acknowledged to Montclair Local that incident involved an issue of consent.

Safesport had initially suspended Hadzic from participating in the Olympics, but An arbitrator lifted the suspension in June. According to USA Today Judge Sherrie L. Krauser, who presided over the hearing, said there hadn’t been any new allegation in the last two years — the incidents under investigation date from 2013 through 2015 — and other measures in place would keep fencers safe. “Further, I do not find it likely that [Mr. Hadzic’s] continued participation would be detrimental to the reputation of the United States or his sport,” USA Today quoted Krauser saying — a statement Jack Wiener, who has represented one of the women accusing Hadzic, told Montclair Local was “jaw dropping.”

USA Fencing put in police a “safety plan” that restricted Hadzic from staying in the Olympic Village, and required him to fly to Tokyo separately from his teammates. Hadzic unsuccessfully sought to have those restrictions set aside. During that process, fellow fencers wrote a letter to USA Fencing, saying they would feel unsafe were Hadzic allowed to stay in the Olympic Village.

“We are all aware of the accusations of sexual assault raised against Alen. Many of us have been bystanders and/or witnesses to his misconduct,” the letter states. Montclair Local has been provided copies by two sources; one didn’t reflect any signatures and the other reflected a hand signature from a single member of the US Olympic Fencing team, though the print of the letter says it’s from the 2021 Olympic fencing team. Buzzfeed, however, reported it was submitted to USA Fencing signed by the entire roster of Team USA.

Their letter continues: “We, the athletes, will feel extremely unsafe and uncomfortable should Alen be transferred to live in the Olympic Village. Hundreds of other US athletes, coaches and staff, not to mention the thousands of international Olympic stakeholders staying in the village, will be unknowingly also put at risk due to Alen’s presence.”

SafeSport itself does not disclose the nature of allegations it’s investigating. A spokesman for the organization has also stressed steps it takes on matters such as the suspension aren’t an indication of what its investigation may ultimately find.

Wiener has been in continued contact with the International Fencing Federation (known as the FIE because of its French acronym) over a complaint he’s sought to file with the group. In correspondence seen by Montclair Local, FIE Safeguarding told Wiener Wednesday any complaint must be filled within 60 days following the incriminating acts or the date of their discovery by the complainant.

Wiener wrote back to the FIE: “Let me get this straight. You are saying that if the FIE receives a signed complaint from a female with a detailed and credible description of how she has been sexually assaulted — even raped — 61 days prior to the date of her report by a male fencer, you will allow the fencer to compete in the Olympics? So … similarly, Dr. Larry Nasser would have avoided FIE sanction, had he provided his services to a fencer … but only more than 60 days prior to the report?”

A spokesperson for FIE has not yet returned a message Montclair Local sent Thursday afternoon seeking to confirm that policy, and asking what steps the FIE would take in response to complaints of sexual misconduct.

The U.S. team lost to Japan Friday, finishing ninth. Hadzic, as an alternate, would only have competed if another fencer were injured or otherwise unavailable; he appeared at the match but did not compete.