Alen Hadzic at the Challenge SNCF Réseau 2016. (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Montclair High School graduate Alen Hadzic’s chance to fence in the 2021 Olympics has come and gone — but the sexual misconduct investigation that threatened to keep him from appearing at the games altogether continues.

Attorney Jack Wiener says that over the last week, he’s newly been retained by two clients who are speaking about Hadzic to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the body charged with investigating reports of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. 

One, he said, is an alleged victim of sexual misconduct by Hadzic and was planning to file a complaint with SafeSport. The other, Wiener said, had knowledge of an alleged incident of misconduct, but wasn’t the victim of it. He declined to provide further details on either client.

It wasn’t clear if either of those incidents was directly related to the complaints three women had already made about Hadzic, relating to incidents dating from 2013 through 2015. Wiener has represented one of those women as well. 

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Should SafeSport ultimately rule against Hadzic, it could suspend him from any participation in USA Fencing events.

Hadzic, an alternate on the U.S. men’s Olympic fencing team, would only have competed if another fencer had become injured or unavailable. But with an earlier suspension by SafeSport overturned while the investigation continued, he appeared alongside his teammates as part of the epee team Friday. The team ultimately fell to Japan, and finished ninth. 

When Hadzic was alongside his teammates, one difference stood out: Hadzic, seen in videos and images that quickly spread through social media, was wearing a black face mask. Fellow fencers Jake Hoyle, Curtis McDowald and Yeisser Ramirez were in pink masks — in apparent protest of Hadzic’s presence and support of the women who’ve accused him of misconduct. 

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?”

She continued: “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, has denied the allegations. He has not been criminally charged in connection with them.

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)

He 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 said he “chewed out” Ramirez over the matter. He said he couldn’t track down McDowald.

It’s a protest many others in the fencing 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.”

Montclair Local first reported Hadzic had been suspended over misconduct allegations in June. An arbitrator lifted the suspension later that month. According to USA Today, Judge Sherrie L. Krauser, who presided over the hearing, said there hadn’t been any new allegations 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 Wiener told Montclair Local was “jaw-dropping.”

Hadzic’s lawyer, Michael Palma, has told Montclair Local his client has never been accused of rape in any forum, including the SafeSport investigation.

But he acknowledged that one of the incidents under review was the same that prompted a Title IX investigation, when both Hadzic and the woman who filed the complaint were fencers at Columbia University. And Palma acknowledged to Montclair Local that complaint, which resulted in Hadzic’s suspension from Columbia for a year, involved an issue of consent.

“Hypothetically, it can be a situation where the parties are mutually, willingly and affirmatively engaged together in a sexual act without any impropriety or coercion and everyone is of sound mind and, several days later, one of the parties decides to retract their consent after the act has occurred,” Palma said. And he said he found the ruling inappropriate given the facts in the record, without describing what they were.

But Wiener called Palma’s description of a hypothetical incident one that “slithers around his admitting the following — under New York criminal law, a person commits rape when he has sex with another person ‘without [her] consent.’”

The Title IX claim and its ruling have not been made public.

The New York Times reported one woman said Hadzic grabbed her buttocks and pushed her against a dresser after she went to his apartment with a female friend whom she didn’t want to leave alone. The Times also reports at least two of the women who’ve filed complaints with SafeSport were fencers who knew Hadzic during their time together at Columbia.

SafeSport 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.

After the arbitrator lifted Hadzic’s suspension, allowing him to appear at the Olympic Games, USA Fencing put in a “safety plan” that restricted Hadzic from staying in the Olympic Village. 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 handwritten signature from a single member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team, though the printed text of the letter says it’s by the 2021 Olympic fencing team.

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 last week any complaint must be filed 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?”

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

— Includes reporting by Talia Wiener