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E.M. Swift
August 12, 2002
An alleged fix at Salt Lake is the latest link between organized crime and Russian athletes
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August 12, 2002


An alleged fix at Salt Lake is the latest link between organized crime and Russian athletes

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The reaction of IOC chief Dr. Jacques Rogge, who described himself as "shocked" at last week's news that an alleged Russian mobster, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 53, had been arrested in Italy for conspiring to fix both the pairs and the ice dancing results in the Salt Lake City Games, called to mind a scene from Casablanca. French police captain Louis Renault, collecting his winnings as he shuts down Rick's Cafe under orders from the occupying Germans, loudly proclaims, "I am shocked! Shocked to find that gambling's going on in here!"

Racketeering? In Russian sports? What would have been truly shocking is if the Russian mafia had not been involved in what has for months been widely, if not officially, viewed as a fix. Anyone with even a cursory sense of sports in Russia knows that organized crime has spread its tentacles around the highest levels of sport, insinuating itself into the lives—and deaths—of numerous high-income, high-profile athletes and officials.

In this case Italian authorities say that as many as six skating judges may have been contacted before the Games by Tokhtakhounov, a man described by the FBI as being "a major figure in international Eurasian organized crime." His motive: backdoor help in getting a French visa.

In early February wiretaps captured Tokhtakhounov talking to the mother of French ice dancer Marina Anissina, who is Russian-born. "Even if she falls, we will make sure she is Number 1," Tokhtakhounov said. In a taped conversation after the Olympics, Anissina acknowledged his help, while opining that she and partner Gwendal Peizerat would have won gold anyway.

Tokhtakhounov, alleged by the FBI to be involved in distributing drugs, selling illegal arms and trafficking in stolen vehicles, has an interesting Rolodex. Tennis pros Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin have all been photographed with him. (Last week Kafelnikov called Tokhtakhounov "a good friend") Anna Kournikova acknowledges that she knows him. Among the guests at a ceremony in Paris in 1999 honoring Tokhtakhounov for philanthropy was Russian hockey star Pavel Bure. Marina Anissina was there too.

Small (under)world.

Mob ties have been alleged or suspected in connection with the deaths of several sports figures who, apparently, were not cooperating. To name just a few, the president of the Russian Hockey Federation, Valentin Sych, was murdered gangland style in April 1997 in Russia; later that year the director general of Spartak Moscow's soccer club, Larissa Nechayeva, was assassinated at her home near Moscow; and last December figure skater Kira Ivanova, a 1984 bronze medalist, was mysteriously murdered in her Moscow apartment.

NHL stars from Russia have long been subjected to extortion attempts, though few will talk about it In January 1996 defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky's mother was kidnapped by conspirators who demanded ransom and protection money. (Tverdovsky refused to pay, and his mother was released unharmed.) In '94 a Russian gangster confessed to trying to extort $150,000 from then Sabres forward Alexander Mogilny. And U.S. investigators have long suspected that Bure, Valeri Kamensky and former Red Wings star Slava Fetisov, who coached the Russian Olympic team in Salt Lake, have associates in the Russian mob.

The fixing of a figure skating competition? Small potatoes for this lot. Certainly not worthy of a reaction so vivid as shock. As Kournikova sensibly responded when asked about her relationship with Tokhtakhounov last week in San Diego, "I don't think I should be talking about this. I'm Russian. I have to go back there."