Paris2024: Defecting Russian Athletes with an American Olympic Dream

Three outstanding and recognized Russian fencers who left their country after the invasion of Ukraine are living their everyday lives in the US. There is a race against time for Sergei Bida and Konstantin Lokhanov, as they fight for the opportunity to perform at the Olympic Games in Paris wearing American colors. Meanwhile Bida's wife - Violetta - is scheduled to return to fencing after some time, because she recently gave birth to a son, who was given a very American name: Wayne. 

Lokhanov as a World Champion in 2018. Photo: IG
February 2022. The Russian army enters Ukraine and an inexplicable invasion begins. At the same time, in Germany, Konstantin Lokhanov, a 23-year-old Russian athlete, who in 2017-18 was the best junior saber fencer in the world and in 2021 competed for Russia during the Tokyo Olympics, is undergoing a right hip surgery. Upon hearing the news about the war, the Russian calls his wife Sofija Pozdnyakova: a world, European, and Olympic champion in saber and daughter of Stanislav Pozdnyakov, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee. He delivers his wife these shocking news: “I decided not to return to Russia. I am against the war and against the oppression of freedom of speech, which for me, is one of the key values in life.” – recalls Lokhanov.

Konstantin, who even before the war viewed himself as "pro-American and pro-European" in the past shared with his wife his vision of a permanent move to the US after their professional fencing careers are over. Sofia's response was always the same: why speak of things that are so distant in time? “The war accelerated the implementation of my life plan, but despite many difficult conversations she just didn't share my vision. I left behind my entire Moscow life including Sofija and flew to Atlanta to a friend. Later on that year Sofija filed for divorce. I felt very lonely. I missed talking to my mom, who died of COVID at the end of 2021. She was only 43 years old.” says Lokhanov, who, after a few months in the state of Georgia accepted an instructor position at the La Jolla Fencing Academy in San Diego.

February 2023. Violetta Khrapina, 29, and Sergei Bida, who is a year older, are getting married somewhere in Russia. They met years ago at a fencing camp and in this sport, and more specifically in epee, they have achieved a lot over the years. He is, among others, individual world vice-champion in 2019 and Olympic vice-champion in team event in Tokyo. She is the team vice-champion of Europe and the world in 2019. In Tokyo, with the Russian team, she took 8th place.

Violetta is a woman with a beautiful, athletic figure, which she is not ashamed of and which can sometimes be seen in her posts on social media. One day, one of her social posts (with a photo in a gymnastic pose next to the #HïIbiza sign in front of one of the most famous beachfront disco clubs in Spain - photo on the right)) is being disliked by someone higher up and without warning she is deprived of her salary and excluded from training and participating in the national team. This, and the fact that she and her husband do not support the war in Ukraine, make them follow in Lokhanov's footsteps. In May 2023 they leave their Moscow luxuries, friends and family and move permanently to northern California, where they rent a one-bedroom apartment and take up work at the Academy of Fencing Masters.

Lokhanov. Photo: IG
The sports community leadership in Russia is raging, but the boiling water is poured out only after Lokhanov and Sergei take part in the US Summer National Championships. Lokhanov wins the gold medal in sabre – in a competition in which 155 fencers compete. Sergei for his part wins the gold medal in epee team —a competiton in which 60 teams compete. In order for the Russians to compete there they had to meet one condition: sign a public declaration condemning both the invasion and the participation in fencing competitions of those Russian and Belarusian athletes who did not renounce their support for the war. “I signed the declaration.” - says Lokhanov. "I made the decision in exactly 10 seconds. It took me that long to read the text, which I absolutely agree with.”

This is apparently very upsetting to some sports leaders in Russia, which is why first Alexander Glazunov, the national epee coach, is fired fromhis job, and then in December 2023, a national search for the Bidas is initiated in Russia. In addition, they are accused of treason, for which they may face up to 10 years in prison. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that both Lokhanov and the Bidas are starting to apply for American citizenship on an accelerated basis, which could allow the athletes to represent the US at the Olympics in Paris.

Sergei Bida. Photo: IG
This would not be an unprecedented situation, because in 1976, Jana Hlavaty, born in Czechoslovakia, took part in the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck under the United States flag thanks to the so-called "Personal Relief Bill", a special legal document presented and approved by the Senate and signed by then-President Gerald Ford. Hlavaty left her homeland after the "Prague Spring", i.e. the political liberalization of Czechoslovakia. In 1969, she flew to visit her uncle in Chicago and stayed there. In March 1971, she married an American, but immigration law at the time made her wait five years for citizenship. However, she was a talented cross-country skier who trained with the American team from 1973. Thanks to the Personal Relief Bill, she received citizenship in January 1976, and a month later she was part of the US Olympic 5- and 10-kilometer relay teams.

Current U.S. immigration law is slightly different, but one rule has not changed. The Personal Relief Bill could open the way for Lokhanov and the Bidas not only to citizenship, but also to international sport participation, which they long for.

Lokhanov as a US Fencing coach. Photo: IG
“The US summer championships were my first competition since Tokyo. Some top contenders were missing, but I was happy both with the win and the fact that I could fence again. Then, in October, I competed in the North American Cup in Florida, where I took 3rd place in the full field of national talent. And again I was happy that I was still competing at the world level, but I was a bit sad that I couldn't prove it in international competitions. That's why performing in Paris would be great for me." - reveals Lokhanov.

In this race against time, all three Russian defectors are supported pro bono by New York attorney and former junior Olympic fencer Jack Wiener, who has been joined as co-counsel by the Washington, DC law firm Covington & Burling. Since late last year, under his leadership, US senators and members of the House of Representatives have been reached out to, seeking support for the passage of a Personal Relief Bill for his clients.

Getting resounding letters of support from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and USA Fencing has been a great help. “All three of [the fencers] have made the greatest personal sacrifice and continue to risk their lives to represent our nation, so we ask you to make every effort to support them in this extraordinary situation.” - wrote the Executive Director of the Fencing Association, Phil Andrews, in his letter.

Violetta, Sergei and Wayne Bida - photo: IG
At the moment, no one knows whether Wiener's efforts will bear fruit before Paris, but Lokkhanov is moderately optimistic. “I don't worry about it, I just do my thing. I focus on working with children, which gives me a lot of positive experiences. They are young and haven't experienced real life yet, so they are nice and trusting. On this principle, we build nice, emotional bonds, which makes me want to help them even more and give them all of myself." - he explains, and adds: "If I don't take part in the Olympics now, maybe I will make it in Los Angeles in 2028. It would be a fantastic thing to participate in this great event right in my backyard and I wouldn't be afraid to face the Russians. It's a combat sport and you have to defeat your opponents no matter where they come from. As soon as I get an American passport, I will be ready for it.”

Violetta and Sergei also hope for a favorable consideration of their case, but they also live for something else apart from hope. On March 27, their firstborn son was born, whom they named Wayne. Even though his name is very American and he will speak English and attend American schools, they also intend to teach him Russian through daily conversation. “We are very happy that he is an American citizen.” - told us brand new dad Sergei. All this means that even if he or his wife never get to compete for the US, everything is wide open to Wayne.

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