The international boxing world has been shaken on the eve of a major pre-Olympic competition by a suggestion that Azerbaijan secretly paid millions of dollars in hopes of winning boxing gold at the London 2012 Olympics.
The report, by BBC, came as competitors from all over the world converged on Baku for the first major qualifying event for next summer's games.
Baku is hosting the 2011 World Championships of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), an organization recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the sport's international governing board. The bouts, which began on September 22 and run through October 10, are part of a series of competitions to winnow out the many boxers who aspire to enter next year's Olympic Games.
Just as the event got under way, a BBC investigative program alleged it had uncovered evidence of a secret payment of $9 million from Azerbaijan to an arm of the AIBA. The allegations, aired on BBC's Newsnight on September 22, raise a host of questions about who in Azerbaijan made the payment and what for.
So many questions, in fact, that IOC President Jacques Rogge on September 23 vowed to look into the report immediately.
"We are asking the BBC to provide us with the evidence because we take everything seriously, but of course we can only take the decision after having seen evidence," Rogge said in Beijing. "So we've asked the BBC to provide us as soon as possible with full evidence and it will be examined by the IOC also."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev inaugurates the Tovuz Olympic Sports Complex in February 2011.
The BBC says whistle-blowers within the AIBA claimed one of its top-ranking officials, Ivan Khodabakhsh, told them he had done a secret deal to secure funding from Azerbaijan in return for guaranteeing that two of the country's boxers win gold medals in London next year.
Khodabakhsh, the chief operating officer of World Series Boxing (WSB), a key part of the AIBA's tournament structure, immediately rebutted the claims. "I deny that I have offered anyone two gold medals or have any understanding that anybody else has offered two gold medals to Azerbaijan," he said.
Following the show, the AIBA confirmed in a statement that $9 million had been paid to the WSB. It said the money was a loan from an investment company on "a commercial basis and with a view to a commercial return for the investor." It also said the loan went to WSB's U.S. branch, which is in financial difficulty.
The view inside a new sports complex in Masalli, Azerbaijan, that was built as part of the country's 2016 Olympics bid
The name of the investor remains a mystery. The AIBA initially identified it as a Swiss company, but the BBC investigative team said documents it obtained showed Khodabakhsh and AIBA executive director Ho Kim had communicated with Azerbaijan's minister for emergency situations about an investment agreement for a $10 million loan.
"We've obtained e-mails between World Series Boxing and Azerbaijan," investigative reporter Anna Adams says in the program of the team's findings. "In the e-mail it refers to a meeting in Baku with a government minister to discuss funding, and attached is an investment agreement [for] $10 million. And whistle-blowers were told that Azerbaijan had been promised two gold medals in return."
Lawyers for AIBA and WSB later confirmed to the BBC that although the money was paid through a Swiss company, it actually came from Azerbaijan. The lawyers also said that Minister for Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov introduced a private Azerbaijani investor to the WSB and that the minister and an assistant acted as an interface due to the investor's limited English. The lawyers denied the money was from the Azerbaijani government.
Just Win, Baby
As the AIBA and the BBC investigative team now spar over the details of the allegations, it could be months before enough details emerge to resolve the contradictions. But the story already is casting new attention on Azerbaijan's long-standing fixation on the Olympic Games -- an obsession that permeates the highest levels of government.
Ahead of the last summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Azerbaijan was in the news amid charges it was trying to get a field hockey team to the games by fraud. Baku formed its women's field hockey team almost entirely of former Korean athletes hastily married to Azerbaijani husbands and given Azerbaijani passports. The team did not make it to the Olympics but prompted consternation over whether it should be considered an Azerbaijani team or not.
Observers in Baku say the government's intense interest in winning at the Olympics reflects the priorities of President Ilham Aliyev himself.
Aliyev held the position of head of Azerbaijan's Olympic Committee before assuming the presidency upon his father's death. He has since closely integrated top sports positions in the country with top government positions, so that the head of an individual sport federation and of a key ministry are often one-and-the-same trusted advisor.
While Aliyev himself remains head of the National Olympic Committee, Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov is president of the Wrestling Federation and Minister of Labor and Social Protection of People Fizulu Alakbarov is president of the Azerbaijan Judo Federation. Similarly, the president of Azerbaijan's state-controlled oil company (SOCAR), Rovnaq Abdullayev, is president of the Football Federations Association; Aliyev's wife, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, is the president of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation.
Such appointments suggest that Aliyev sees Azerbaijani success at international sports events as a path to domestic popularity for his government and to earn it greater international legitimacy. As part of his sports priority, he has funded Olympic centers around the country, including a half-billion-dollar Olympic Stadium in Baku. The expenditures are controversial with many Azerbaijanis because state salaries remain low while the disparity between the country's very rich and its poor keeps growing. Much of Azerbaijan's oil wealth has been limited to those around the president, while the rest of the economy has stagnated.
Critics will no doubt be wondering whether Azerbaijani officials' interest in bringing home Olympic gold might finally have grown to such an extent that someone would seek to buy victory at any price. It is too early to know the answer, but the discovery of a $9 million loan to boxing authorities just as the run-up to the London Olympics begins was bound to raise eyebrows in a country where the government's obsession with medals is only too well known.