Alexander Massialas left Rio Olympics with two medals, two words he won’t forget

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Fencer Alexander Massialas repeated the word in interviews last year, remembering his immediate reaction after the Rio Olympic individual foil final: Devastation.

Massialas, then ranked No. 1 in the world, had a golden opportunity to become the first U.S. man to win an Olympic fencing title in the modern era of weapons.

After the comeback of his life in the quarterfinals, scoring seven straight touches to avoid elimination, he ran out of magic in the final against Italian Daniele Garrozo.

Garrozo was ranked 11th in the world, had never before earned an individual Olympic or world championships medal and had never beaten Massialas in a regulation bout.

“[Garrozo] was having a day,” said Massialas’ father and coach, Greg, a three-time Olympian (the first being the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games).

The moment from Aug. 7, 2016, that will most stick with Massialas came seconds after Garrozo whipped off his mask and sprinted off the stage in jubliation. Massialas, who had been shielded by a stars-and-stripes facemask, was enveloped by his father just off the strip.

“Though you can’t see it,” Massialas said, “I’m definitely crying.”

It’s OK, his father told him. Greg repeated it: It’s OK.

“Those were two of the most impactful words I’d ever heard,” Massialas said last autumn. “All I needed to hear.”

Growing up, Massialas was inspired by his father’s trophy case. He said he wanted to become not just an Olympian, but an Olympic gold medalist, before he even started fencing. That was early, given Massialas yearned to pick up a weapon around kindergarten. But his dad’s age minimum for any student was 7 years old.

Massialas attended three Games — 1996 (age 2, his dad was a referee), 2004, 2008 — before he made his first team in 2012 as the youngest U.S. male Olympian across all sports in London (18).

In Rio, Massialas was perhaps the best hope to end the U.S. male gold-medal drought in fencing, where the most well-known Americans were women — double Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis and barrier-breaking Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Massialas missed practices leading up to competition in Brazil, though, with a wrist injury. In the quarterfinals, he was trailing Italian Giorgio Avola 14-8, one touch from elimination. Massialas never beat Avola in three previous duels.

Greg watched from the coach’s area. With his son on the brink, he peered at another strip, where another American pupil, Gerek Meinhardt, also trailed in a quarterfinal. Greg decided in that moment to stay with his son.

After the comeback, Greg remembered being in a back room. Across it, Avola sat motionless, still in his fencing gear, until people told him to leave because they were closing.

Hours later, after the final, Massialas was in a similar place in the arena. Greg decided then to share a thought he had right after the defeat.

“You know what, going into this morning, if I told you that you were going to get a silver medal, I would take it,” Greg said. In fencing, every round of a medal event is held on one day. “A silver medal at the Olympic Games is kind of an amazing accomplishment, especially for U.S. fencing.”

Three days later, Massialas returned for the team event. Again, the U.S. was a medal favorite. Again, there was an upset. This time in the semifinals against Russia. Massialas’ turn was up with a 40-39 lead. The first team to 45 wins. He lost six of the next seven touches to Russian Alexey Cheremisinov.

“I was almost certainly more distraught when I lost that match than when I lost the individual,” he said. “We could’ve won the gold had I just fenced a little bit better.”

Massialas would win his last competition of the Games, though. He beat Garozzo 5-1 in the team bronze-medal match, as the U.S. rolled 45-31 over Italy.

“I’m just glad I was able to do it,” he said. “I just wish I had done it three days earlier.”

A third Olympics for Massialas — a fifth for the family, as competitors — could bring another unique experience.

Younger sister Sabrina is likely to qualify for her first Olympics, four years after just missing the U.S. women’s foil team. Sabrina, an NCAA team champion at Notre Dame, since spent seven months on crutches after foot and hip surgeries.

Greg said she’s now ranked fourth in U.S. Olympic qualifying with the process close to completion. Four make the team.

As for Alexander, he has a Stanford mechanical engineering degree ready to put to use. After he completes his Olympic medal collection.

“It feels a little bit more like unfinished business,” said Massialas, who qualified for Tokyo before the coronavirus pandemic, is ranked fifth in the world and won a 2019 World title in the team event. “I’ve proven that I can do amazing things. I can win World Cups and Grand Prix. I can win all kinds of results, but the dream ever since I was a kid, before I even started fencing, was to be an Olympic champion.”

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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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