Alen Hadzic, 29, of South Orange, N.J., is an alternate in the men’s epee event with the United States Olympic fencing team. But while facing accusations of sexual impropriety that he denies but remain unresolved, Hadzic has been ostracized from his teammates in Tokyo.
He had to fly separately, his lawyer said, has not been permitted to stay in the Olympic Village and must train and reside at a remote hotel. This precaution was taken for the safety and well being of other American fencers who expressed concerns about Hadzic’s presence and a desire to minimize distractions, according to the fencing federation.
The case reflects the complicated, awkward and sometimes acrimonious efforts by the United States Olympic movement to judiciously handle claims of sexual abuse three years after Lawrence G. Nassar, the former doctor for the American women’s gymnastics team, was essentially sentenced to life in prison for committing multiple sex crimes.
Hadzic faces accusations of sexual impropriety by three women in incidents that occurred between 2013 and 2015. At least two of the women were fencers who knew Hadzic during their careers at Columbia University.
He was temporarily suspended from any fencing activities on June 2 by the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The nonprofit was created as an independent agency in 2017 to safeguard athletes in Olympic-related sports from sexual, emotional and physical abuse. His chances of participating in the Tokyo Games appeared to be done.
But Hadzic appealed and his suspension was overturned by an arbitrator on June 29, restoring his Olympic eligibility. The arbitrator left in place a directive for Hadzic not to contact his accusers but ruled that his suspension was “inappropriate to the allegations” and found that his participation on the Olympic team would not be “detrimental to the reputation of the United States or his sport.”
He will compete in Tokyo as a replacement in the individual or team epee competition if a teammate gets hurt or becomes ill.
Referring to the accusations of sexual misconduct, Hadzic told USA Today, which first reported details of the case on Wednesday, “They’re just frankly not true.”
Michael Palma, Hadzic’s Florida-based lawyer, said in an interview that he will argue at an arbitration hearing on Thursday to end what he called an unfounded segregation imposed on his client in Tokyo. He said that USA Fencing was attempting to hide Hadzic to avoid negative publicity and was keeping him “from participating in the Olympic experience that he has rightfully earned.”
After narrowly missing a spot on the U.S. fencing team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Hadzic qualified for the Tokyo Games on May 7. He smiled and gave a thumbs-up gesture while being photographed for USA Fencing’s Instagram page. Soon, though, accusations of sexual misconduct were posted on the page and elsewhere on social media, accusing Hadzic of being a predator and a rapist.
Palma, his lawyer, said that Hadzic had never committed a sexual assault and had never been charged with rape or with any civil or criminal complaint involving sexual impropriety. Hadzic was suspended from Columbia for the 2013-14 year following a Title IX investigation involving sexual consent, Palma said. He called the proceeding a “kangaroo court” in which Hadzic was not allowed to call witnesses or present character statements.
If Hadzic and his accusers in the current case can agree on anything, it is what their lawyers call the shortcomings of SafeSport’s procedural system.
Although SafeSport has levied temporary or permanent sanctions against approximately 1,500 people in Olympic-related sports, and its investigative ability has grown considerably, it has faced criticism over the years for a lack of funding, staffing, transparency and independence from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“The system is broken,” Palma said.
Accusations of sexual misconduct, though subject to rebuttal, are initially considered by SafeSport to be true as a means of protecting those who might be victims. That puts the accused at a disadvantage, Palma said, noting that Hadzic was temporarily suspended without notice and without a chance to defend himself. As can happen in such cases, Palma said, the case was adjudicated on social media before Hadzic had an opportunity to overturn his suspension.
USA Fencing knew of the accusations against Hadzic for years, Palma said, but never placed any restrictions on him until he made the Olympic team. USA Fencing declined to comment. If Hadzic’s accusers were so concerned about his behavior, Palma said, why didn’t they go to SafeSport years ago instead of waiting until he qualified for the Tokyo Games?
“The allegations are serious,” Palma said. “The fact is, they’re not true.”
Hadzic’s accusers, meanwhile, feel he is unjustly being given a chance to potentially compete and represent his country in fencing’s premier global showcase.
“I think of the possibility that this man accused of sexual assault by three women, credibly in the eyes of investigators, will stand atop the Olympic podium, wrapped in an American flag,” said Jack Wiener, the lawyer for one of Hadzic’s accusers and an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. “And I ask: How can this be happening in 2021? Have were learned nothing these past few years?”
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Neither Wiener nor his client was allowed to participate in the arbitration hearing that resulted in Hadzic’s suspension being overturned. “That’s shocking to me,” Wiener said. Such an exclusion, he said, was “inconsistent with any modern tribunals I am familiar with in the U.S.”
SafeSport said the arbitration hearing was not meant to be an evidentiary procedure or to decide the merits of the case, only to review the information used in making the temporary suspension. Cases can last months or years and can result in a range of outcomes from exoneration to suspension to a permanent ban from involvement in a sport.
“Arbitration hearings for interim measures do not impact whether an investigation proceeds or not,” said Dan Hill, a SafeSport spokesman.
Wiener’s client said that Hadzic grabbed her buttocks in 2015 and pushed her against a dresser on a night when she had earlier resisted his advances at a bar when she was a student at Columbia. The woman said the incident happened at Hadzic’s apartment in Hoboken, N.J., where she had gone as a protector of a female friend whom she did not want to leave alone.
The June arbitration hearing, Wiener said, took place before the full testimony of at least one of Hadzic’s accusers had been gathered by SafeSport. As of Wednesday night, he added, he had still not received a copy of the arbitrator’s decision or an explanation from SafeSport about why Hadzic’s temporary suspension was overturned.
“SafeSport’s system is rigged,” Wiener said. “It tilts overwhelmingly against victims of sexual assault.”
It is not uncommon for both sides to feel frustration with SafeSport’s procedures, Hill said. But, even with its flaws, the agency’s protections against abuse appear superior to the ineffective system operated previously by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and national sports federations. Cover-ups, most shockingly revealed in Dr. Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts, were so prevalent that American Olympic officials were accused of placing medals over morals.
“The voices that are critical are the loudest,” Hill said. “But there have to be a lot of people who are grateful for the fact that they finally had a place to go that could be trusted and something was done.”
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