The judging scandal that rocked last winter's figure-skating competition at the Olympic Games is grabbing headlines again. Yesterday, Italian police arrested a Russian citizen believed by U.S. investigators to have masterminded a plot to award an Olympic gold medal to Russia's top figure-skating duo.
Prague, 1 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Has Russian organized crime penetrated the pinnacle of international sports, the Olympic Games?
If charges filed by a United States federal prosecutor prove true, it has.
Police in Italy yesterday arrested an alleged Russian crime boss on suspicions he rigged the outcome of two figure-skating events at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in the U.S. city of Salt Lake City. The arrest followed a joint investigation between Italian police and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a criminal complaint filed in New York City by federal prosecutor James Comey.
Alimzan Tokhtakhounov was detained at his seaside home in northwest Italy. He is described in the complaint as a native Uzbek linked to Russian organized crime, with alleged connections to arms and art smuggling.
Tokhtakhounov is being held in a Venice jail pending possible extradition to the U.S., where he faces up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines if convicted of two charges: conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud related to a sports event.
Speaking yesterday in New York, Comey accused the Tashkent-born Tokhtakhounov of being "a major figure in international Eurasian organized crime." Comey said Tokhtakhounov directed a plot to award gold medals to the top Russian figure-skating pair and France's top ice dancers. "The long arm of Russian organized crime reached across the globe this past February and into Salt Lake City with a pair of fixes for the Winter Olympics," Comey said.
Those alleged "fixes" riveted international media attention for two weeks last winter and cast a shadow over the integrity of Olympic judging. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said today he is "appalled" by the latest allegations.
The problem started when the Russian team of Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were awarded the gold medal in pairs figure skating, despite falling in what was widely perceived, at least outside Russia, as an inferior performance to that of silver medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada.
Indeed, the next day, a French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, said she had been pressured by her own skating federation to favor the Russian couple. Le Gougne later recanted, but the Canadian pair was awarded a duplicate gold medal in compensation.
That unprecedented turn of events sparked a wave of outrage across Russia, with the national Olympic Committee threatening to bring its athletes home before the end of the games. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Olympic organizers of conspiring to thwart Russian success.
But U.S. prosecutor Comey said he believes the real plot was akin to an exchange of favors, with French "assistance" to Russia's figure-skating win being paid back with Russian help in securing French gold in ice dancing.
The ice-dancing event was won by France's Gwendal Peizerat and Marina Anissina, who is Russian-born.
Comey said the charges against Tokhtakhounov are based on a series of wiretapped phone conversations he conducted from his various homes in Italy with his alleged coconspirators, as well as, Comey said, with Anissina and her mother.
The FBI has cited an exchange from one of those conversations, in which Tokhtakhounov allegedly tells Anissina's mother that, even if her daughter falls, "We will make sure she is number one."
Tokhtakhounov's payoff allegedly was to come in the form of help from the head of the French Skating Federation in renewing his visa to France, where he once lived. Comey described the plot this way: "Essentially, the Russian organized-crime figure, the defendant, is alleged to have wanted to help this young woman, who is a member of the French pairs team, dancing team, and also help himself. And so to do that, he arranged a classic quid pro quo: 'You'll line up support for the Russian pair, we'll line up support for the French pair, and everybody will go away with the gold. And perhaps there will be a little gold for me, the Russian organized-crime figure.'"
For his part, Canadian skater Sale told reporters yesterday that, "everything is now coming out in the wash" -- that the investigation is showing that corruption did, in fact, determine the outcome.
But Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennadii Shvets told RFE/RL today that Russian athletes were the target of a conspiracy. Shvets called the entire case "laughable." "Sikharulidze and Berezhnaya's program, technically speaking, was higher than that of Pelletier and Sale -- everyone knows that -- or they were equal, at least. And they didn't need [Tokhtakhounov] in order for them to finish in first place. It's laughable and sad at the same time, because again, a kind of rotten tomato is flying at our Olympic competitors, who have a normal reputation, who are strong enough," Shvets said.
Comey said investigators have no evidence of any direct contact between Tokhtakhounov and his alleged coconspirators in the Russian Skating Federation and the French judge Le Gougne.
Both Le Gougne and Didier Gailhaguet, the head of the French Skating Federation who allegedly pressured Le Gougne to vote for the Russians, were suspended for three years by the International Skating Union.
Maxwell Miller, a lawyer representing Le Gougne in Salt Lake City, is quoted as telling "The New York Times" today that the case vindicates his client. "She's a scapegoat and a target of a corrupt system and was unfairly singled out," Miller said.
Excerpts from transcripts of the wiretaps cited in the U.S. complaint quote an unidentified crime figure as talking with Tokhtakhounov shortly after the figure-skating event. He allegedly says, "Our Sikharulidze fell; the Canadians were 10 times better. And in spite of that, the French with their vote gave us first place."
He then reportedly adds, "Everything is going the way you need it."
(RFE/RL's Kathleen Knox contributed to this story.)