As an 11-year-old in Poland, Aleksandra Shelton saw her mother competing in a fencing competition on television. Intrigued by the sport and the allure of also appearing on TV someday, she built a saber fencing career that far surpassed her mother’s aspirations.
A decade later, Shelton won a bronze medal at the 2003 world championships. Then she took gold at the 2004 and 2008 European championships. She has competed in the past four Olympics for Poland. And she anticipated that this summer in Tokyo she would become only the fourth Polish woman — and about the 220th woman worldwide — to participate in five or more Games.
But Shelton, a dual citizen who is married to an American serviceman, encountered what she said was age and gender discrimination from Polish fencing officials after the birth of her first child three years ago. So she made a desperate attempt at nation-switching, hoping to head to her fifth Games as an American. Poland, however, has blocked the change, trapping Shelton between the two countries, leaving her unable as of now to compete in Tokyo for either.
Sandwiched by the heated politics of athletes’ rights and the baroque rules of Olympic eligibility, she is facing the sporting complications that can confront women who become mothers.
“After every storm, there needs to be a sunny day,” Shelton, who turns 38 next month, said in a telephone interview. “But it’s been more than two years of heavy rain.”
Shelton said Polish fencing officials began to reduce support for her once she became pregnant after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She gave birth to a son in 2017.
“She felt she was an expired product in their eyes,” said Carlos Sayao, Shelton’s Toronto-based lawyer.
Frustrated, Shelton sought a different path to her fifth Olympics, and a chance to win an elusive first medal. She has competed as an American since January 2019. But here the story gets complicated.
To prevent mass nation-hopping, athletes generally must wait three years after changing countries to compete in an Olympic Games, unless they receive a special waiver.
A year ago, the matter seemed all but resolved in Shelton’s favor before combusting in recrimination during the spring and summer. In September, the Polish Olympic Committee declined to grant her an exemption to compete in Tokyo as an American. And since she has already switched national affiliations once, she can’t compete for Poland anymore. The Polish Olympic Committee declined to comment for this article.
Shelton has appealed her case to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, a kind of Supreme Court for international sports. No hearing date has been set, and time is growing short. The United States Olympic fencing team will be chosen in April.
The case has received widespread attention in Poland, where the national federations that govern various sports operate with near-complete autonomy and can exert tremendous control over the careers of athletes.
Internationally, the oversight of sports governing bodies has come under intense scrutiny, including in the United States, where recent sexual abuse scandals have rocked several sports, particularly gymnastics and figure skating. In Poland last fall, Witold Banka, a former sports minister, described the top management of the country’s sports federations as being “like a cancer that is destroying Polish sport.”
Two top officials of the Polish fencing federation said in a joint email that they had not discarded Shelton after she gave birth, but instead had considered her the leader of the Polish women’s saber team heading toward the Tokyo Olympics.
They expressed suspicion that her effort to compete for the United States was rooted in strategy, not unfair treatment, after Poland’s failure to win any medals at the 2018 world fencing championships. The officials — Ryszard Sobczak and Tadeusz Tomaszewski — called Shelton’s accusations “untrue and full of slander.”
Shelton tells a different story. When she became pregnant, she said, Polish fencing officials prevented her from becoming the head saber coach at a prominent club in Warsaw. Their claim, she said, was that she lacked experience, even though she had competed in four Olympics.
Her coach at the time acknowledged in an interview that pregnancy was “a factor” in the decision because the coaching post would have required frequent travel and increased demands on Shelton’s time.
After Shelton gave birth, she said, the Polish fencing federation reneged on a promise to provide a physiotherapist to help her get back into competitive shape. Officials also declined, she said, to let her continue to train in Portland, Ore., a hub of American fencing, where Shelton has lived part time since 2010.
While nothing was said to her face by fencing officials, Shelton said she heard indirectly from colleagues that the Polish federation felt “I am too old, I should stay at home.”
Eventually, Shelton said, the Polish fencing federation seemed to sabotage her ability to continue competing for the Polish army team, causing her to lose her military retirement benefits. The federation strongly denied this, saying the army team remained available only to fencers still competing internationally for Poland. Broadly speaking, the federation officials wrote in their email that Shelton was attempting to “manipulate the facts to fit her narrative.”
Despite recent struggles, Poland’s 22 Olympic fencing medals (19 won by men, 3 by women) rank seventh among competing nations. Individual and team competitions are held in épée, foil and saber events.
“She is not in a shape that would allow her to compete in individual events, but in the United States she could compete as part of their team,” said Piotr Stroka, who coached Shelton in Warsaw and disagreed with her decision to pursue a nationality switch.
Stroka dismissed claims of discrimination, saying that Polish female fencers are “perhaps treated even better than men.” In Shelton’s case, he said, the federation “did everything it could for her.”
Yet it is not unusual for pregnant women in Olympic sports to find themselves in a disadvantaged position. Nike, for instance, faced withering criticism last year from American track stars sponsored by the company for reducing performance-based payments surrounding the period of childbirth. Facing a backlash, the sportswear giant amended its policy.
In Poland, sports federations in general have also endured searing rebuke. Banka, the former Polish sports minister who is now president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told a radio interviewer in November that federations there are often “managed by irresponsible people who run them in an unethical way.”
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Sylwia Gruchala, a two-time Olympic fencing medalist for Poland, publicly said the country’s fencing federation was incompetent and did not sufficiently support its athletes. After agreeing to an interview for this article, she changed her mind, saying, “I have a good life now and don’t want to start a war.”
Shelton’s case appeared on the verge of an amicable resolution early last year. U.S.A. Fencing and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee supported her in official requests to switch nationalities. The Polish fencing federation gave her a conditional release for Olympic eligibility as an American. All she needed to become eligible for the Tokyo Games was a final waiver from the Polish Olympic Committee.
But in March, Shelton, feeling exasperated by what she considered foot-dragging, publicly criticized the Polish fencing federation. Among other things, she questioned the ethics of requiring her to agree to pay 43,000 euros, nearly $47,000, in cash or fencing equipment to secure her conditional release.
The Polish federation said the payment was necessary to recover training costs it had incurred for Shelton since the 2016 Olympics. Otherwise, officials said, they would have essentially been subsidizing an American athlete. Hubert Radke, a Polish sports lawyer not involved in the case, said that Polish sports federations impose financial barriers and other regulations that frequently restrict the freedom of athletes. Shelton never made the payment.
Her comments infuriated Polish fencing officials, and they demanded an apology and threatened to sue Shelton. The fencing federation urged the Polish Olympic Committee not to grant her the release needed to compete for the United States in Tokyo. On Sept. 10, the committee complied. This month, the fencing federation said that Shelton’s behavior was “reprehensible and unworthy of an athlete.”
Shelton said, “They just want to destroy me.”
The uncertainty continues, fair or not.
Radke, the independent sports lawyer, said the matter appeared black and white. “I don’t see any justified reasons to deny her right to compete.”
Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw.