GREAT BRITISH OLYMPIANS
The day a Soviet cheat was snared by a British pentathlete. By Keith Wheatley, Sunday Times
IT WASN'T quite the Cuban Missile Crisis but, for a few days in July 1976, an Olympic gold medal brought the two sides in the cold war eyeball to eyeball in a confrontation that shook more than the sporting world
Boris Onischenko, a key member of the Soviet Union's modern pentathlon team, was disqualified for cheating, obliterating Soviet hopes of a medal in a discipline dominated by the military. Jim Fox, the British athlete, unmasked him.
Onischenko had "hot-wired" his épée to rig the electronic scoring system, and was hustled out of Canada as the world's press descended on Montreal University's winter stadium, where the fencing had been staged.
"What you have to remember is that I was very publicly a member of the British Army and Boris was a half-colonel in the KGB," recalled Fox, who was awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list yesterday. "It became a huge international incident. At one stage, I was told the whole Eastern bloc was going to pull out, and it was down to me. It's not ideal material for a competitor to be thinking about, is it?"
The disqualification and disgrace of a man he had known well and competed against for 10 years had a profoundly depressing effect on Fox. "We weren't bosom pals, but we'd often drunk vodka together in the evenings at various competitions, so there was a relationship between Boris and me," said Fox.
After the pentathlon's first event, horse riding, the British team lay in third place, with the Soviet Union only 76 points behind. This was not enough of a cushion, since the form book indicated that in the next day's fencing the Soviets would sweep past Fox and his two colleagues.
Adrian Parker, the specialist swimmer member of the British squad, was the first
to meet the Soviet. Fox, as team captain, watched the bout carefully. Parker was expected to lose against Onischenko, the top fencer in modern pentathlon, but the manner of his defeat bothered Fox. They were certain that when the automatic light registered a hit for the Soviet athlete, his épée had not touched Parker's tunic. Fox decided to investigate when his turn came to meet Oni-schenko.
At the Ukrainian's first thrust, Fox leaned so far back that the blade was 6in from his body, and still the light came on. The presiding official agreed that the weapon should go to the technicians to be checked for a possible short circuit. With a replacement épée, the Soviet beat Fox and went on to record eight wins in his nine bouts that morning.
As they passed at one point in the large stadium, Fox recalls Onischenko saying: "Jim, I am very sorry." Fox was puzzled by the words, but everything became clear when the technical jury found that a push-button circuit-breaker had been built into the handle of Onischenko's weapon, which registered a "hit" at will.
Onischenko's disqualification left Fox distraught. He fenced badly for the rest of that day, and shot his pistol even worse on the third day of competition. The Army sergeant was demoralised by the weight of what his revelations had done to the Olympics, and the British team slipped to eighth position.
The next day, in the swimming pool, Fox equalled his personal best time but it was still only good enough to place him 34th out of 46 competitors. Parker swam the race of his life and the team moved back to fifth, only 200 points behind second-placed Poland.
The cross-country run was the finale of the modern pentathlon. Fox had to run the anchor leg, with the faint possibility of gold for the team. "I reckon I nearly blew a gasket on that run," he said later. Fox, the old man of the team at 36, needed oxygen as he crossed the finish line. It took 25 minutes for the rudimentary calculators of the pre-computer age to be certain that Britain had snatched the gold medal from Czechoslovakia.
Fox now lives in retirement in rural Oxfordshire. For the past four years, he has battled against Parkinson's disease. Drug therapy is proving effective and he shows no sign of giving in to the disease that has also trapped Muhammad Ali.