Talent pursuit. A fencing couple who moved to the USA is now on the wanted list in Russia
Дмитрий Швец
Talent pursuit. A fencing couple who moved to the USA is now on the wanted list in Russia
26 December 2023, 20:55

Sergey Bida. Photo: Andrew Medichini / AP

Fencing couple Sergey and Violetta Bida who both represented Russia’s Olympic team relocated to the United States this year. They have become suspects in a criminal case and now are wanted by the police. Their problems likely stem for their formal affiliations and the way competitive sports is shaped in Russia: Sergey was formally employed by Rosgvardiya (the National Guard) while at Dynamo sports club, and Violetta was with the Ministry of Defence while at CSKA club. The couple faced persecution after Sergey Bida was allowed to compete in the US, where he began securing prize-winning positions.

Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs has initiated a nationwide search for Sergey and Violetta Bida, the renowned fencing couple who left Russia. We found this information in the national wanted database, though the charges remain unclear. Our data indicates that Sergey was added to the wanted list by September and Violetta by October 2023. However, there’s no evidence of any legal proceedings for their arrest in absentia.

Sergey Bida, 30, a celebrated member of the Dynamo sports club, has an impressive track record, including Russian and European Junior Championships titles and a silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. His wife, Violetta, 29, from CSKA, is also an Olympic athlete and an international medalist.

The wanted database card for Sergey Bida

The couple, both prominent in Russian fencing, left Russia by the summer of 2023. Violetta shared on her Telegram channel last year the challenges they faced when their superiors seized their passports, jeopardizing their planned holiday. “Due to certain circumstances, our travel passports were taken from us. We had tickets but no passports,” she revealed. “What I did was to keep telling myself that I was celebrating New Year’s on the beach. Eventually, we miraculously got our passports back.”

Both athletes were affiliated with clubs connected to security forces: Sergey from Dynamo simultaneously held an officer’s rank in Rosgvardiya, while Violetta from CSKA was serving in the Ministry of Defence. The passport issue was likely linked to this, as Rosgvardiya had advised against foreign travel for its employees since 2019, and similar restrictions were in place for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and military personnel.

Serving Athletes

The practice of athletes also being listed as servicemen dates back to the early Soviet era. At that time, sports societies were established under various agencies: the Ministry of Internal Affairs employees were expected to play for Dynamo, railway workers for Lokomotiv, military personnel for CSKA, and so on.

Over time, this became more of a formality, sometimes leading to scandals. For instance, in 2016, a human resources officer from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bashkortostan faced criminal charges for hiring athletes. In 2023, Elena Isinbaeva, a two-time Olympic pole vault champion and CSKA athlete, who moved to Spain, commented that her rank of major was “nominal” as she “never served and is not serving in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”.

Violetta Bida wrote about their struggles to leave Russia, describing Sergey’s frantic but futile attempts to resolve their travel restrictions. “I kind of withdrew and said: ‘I choose to spend New Year’s on white sand. I don’t accept this situation; tomorrow, I’ll be on the beach’,” she recounted.

Violetta Bida. Photo: Sergey Bobylev / TASS

The fencers eventually managed to retrieve their passports and leave Russia, spending New Year’s on a beach. After returning to Russia, they participated in competitions in Kazan in the spring.

They did not surrender their passports, and a few months later, they left the country again. On June 1, the American Academy of Fencing Masters’ blog announced that Sergey had joined their coaching staff, and Violetta would also train at the academy. Less than a month later, on June 28, the United States Fencing Association declared that three Russian fencers were permitted to compete in the U.S. This decision required compliance with certain criteria, including disavowing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and publicly stating so. Reuters identified the athletes as Sergey Bida, Oleg Knysh, and Konstantin Lokhanov.

In their first competition in the U.S., Sergey Bida won a gold medal in the team event, while his colleague Konstantin Lokhanov, a sabre fencer, took gold in the individual event. Bida then won first place twice more in October and December.

Their participation in U.S. competitions caused an uproar in Russia, with pro-government sports publications and bloggers fiercely criticizing them for perceived betrayal and questioning whether “aligning with the American flag” could “purify” the athletes who opposed the war.

The Russian Fencing Federation announced on the same day that the national team’s head coach, Alexander Glazunov, would be dismissed due to his athletes’ participation in American competitions “without Russian consent.” The statement read: “Due to the flight of his athletes to the U.S. without federation approval, including the active Rosgvardiya officer Bida and active serviceman Khrapina, senior Russian epee coach Glazunov will be relieved of his position. The relevant documents have already been sent to the Centre for Sports Training.”

It's likely that after this event, the Bidas became the subjects of a criminal case and were eventually declared wanted.

Oleg Knysh and Konstantin Lokhanov, who also competed in the U.S., are not listed as wanted. According to the Russian federation’s website, Knysh is a member of Spartak club, not linked to the security forces. Lokhanov’s club is listed as CSKA. He was married to Sofia Pozdniakova, daughter of the head of the Russian Olympic Committee Stanislav Pozdniakov; they divorced in the summer, with Pozdniakova remaining in Russia. “Now I’m a divorcee. I didn’t go into depression, I wasn’t dying,” she said.

In October, the BBC aired a feature about the three Russian fencers—Sergey and Violetta Bida and Konstantin Lokhanov—who moved to the U.S. due to the war in Ukraine. “Russia deprived me of my salary and excluded me from the international team, I was blacklisted in Russia just because someone disliked my Instagram video,” Violetta shared. The specifics of the video were unclear, and she did not respond to queries from Mediazona.

Sergey Bida speculated that the criminal pursuit might be related to their status as security forces but chose not to comment further: “I’ve decided to distance myself from all this and don’t want anything to do with politics, especially Russian politics.”

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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