In the 1976 Olympics, a Soviet fencer rigged his epee so that it recorded hits even when he didn't touch his opponent.

Peter Westbrook wasn't surprised.

Westbrook, this country's premier fencer and a member of the 1976 Olympic team, says he's come to expect such things. And he accepts it.

Boris Onischenko, a pentathlete at the Montreal Games, "didn't have to cheat," according to Westbrook.

"That guy was a world-class athlete. But it just goes to show you that the competition is sometimes so fierce in a big tournament that even a good fencer can't accept defeat and tries to improve his odds," said Westbrook, who captured the saber title at this week's national fencing championships at George Mason University.

In the women's foil competition yesterday, Jana Angelakis, 20-year-old Penn State sophomore, successfully defended her national title with an 8-5 victory over Vincent Bradford of San Antonio, Tex.

Angelakis trailed twice, at 2-0 and 4-2, before scoring six of the next seven touches. She maintained her No. 1 national ranking after defeating Sharon Monplassir, 8-5, and Jen Starks-Faulkner, 8-4. Bradford advanced to the final with an 8-3 win over Ilona Maskal and a close 10-9 bout with Stacey Johnson.

The tournament continues today with the saber team competition at 2 p.m.

On the topic of cheating, the principals at the national tournament--officials and competitors--differ over whether cheaters still can prosper in the upper levels of fencing. But they agree that the U.S. Fencing Association has done much to eradicate what used to be a pervasive problem.

"Fencing is probably as honest as most sports," said Dr. Marios Valsamis, a former Olympic team manager and national tournament official who also tested fencers this week for illegal stimulants.

"A phenomenally higher percentage of infractions are punished in fencing . . . ," Valsamis said. "When you get right down to it, fencing is one of the cleanest and best-ordered sports and one of the least susceptible to fraud."

Fencers in the past have resorted to such methods as holding the grip of their weapon against their vest or soaking their glove in water so that their vest is grounded and won't register contact when an opponent touches it. But as scoring equipment has become more complex, fencers have been unable to circumvent it.

On top of that, the old round-robin structure for tournaments, which the national association changed to direct elimination last year, used to make it possible for fencers to help their teammates by throwing bouts.

But the rules changes are small consolation for fencers like Westbrook, whose event is not electronically "judged," and who often compete in Europe, where they must cope with hostile judges and round-robin tournaments.

"It's sad, but in a way, it also makes it interesting," Westbrook said. "It's something you shouldn't have to put up with, but we do."