The future of Olympic boxing hangs on Gafur Rakhimov -- a controversial sports administrator blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department as "one of Uzbekistan's leading criminals" and an alleged key figure in the heroin trade.
That’s because Rakhimov was appointed on January 27 as interim president of the International Boxing Association (AIBA). He is tasked with cleaning up corruption within the world governing body of amateur boxing to prevent the sport being banned from the next Olympics.
Rakhimov has never been prosecuted over his alleged criminal activities. But critics say putting him in charge of AIBA's finances and anticorruption reforms is like letting a fox guard the chickens in a henhouse.
Olympic Corruption Probe
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said after Rakhimov's appointment that the IOC was "extremely worried about the governance of AIBA" and "reserves the right" to cut boxing from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
On February 4, just a week after Rakhimov took the helm of AIBA, Bach announced an IOC corruption investigation into the organization's governance.
The IOC has also frozen financial payments to AIBA and broken off all contacts except "the ones on a working level necessary" to clean up corruption.
Bach said one concern was financial misdeeds that have brought AIBA to the verge of bankruptcy -- including an unpaid $10 million loan from a private Azerbaijani construction group.
Another worry is AIBA's unsatisfactory response to possible match-fixing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where all 36 AIBA referees and judges were suspended over questionable decisions that sometimes favored Russian or Uzbek fighters.
The IOC is also investigating AIBA's failure to carry out anti-doping measures amid the scandal around Russia's systemic doping violations.
Rakhimov was appointed interim president by AIBA's Executive Committee on January 27 during the lunch break of an emergency meeting of national-boxing-federation delegates in Dubai.
AIBA's attorney, Claude Ramoni, said Rakhimov's appointment was in line with an AIBA statute stating that in the absence of a president, "the vice president who has served the longest period shall act as interim president."
Rakhimov has served as AIBA's vice president since 2002. He is to be interim president until November, when delegates from 109 national federations will gather in Moscow to elect AIBA's next president.
But Rakhimov first faces an April 30 deadline to show the AIBA is satisfactorily implementing anticorruption reforms in order to convince the IOC not to drop Olympic boxing.
Rakhimov refused to be interviewed by RFE/RL before then. An AIBA spokesperson told RFE/RL that Rakhimov will not give any interviews during his first three months as interim president.
But in his interim presidency acceptance speech, Rakhimov told national-federation delegations in Dubai that they must all "unite to defend the sport" and "work closely with each other to restore confidence in AIBA’s financial management and its integrity."
"This means greater transparency and improved corporate governance of AIBA," Rakhimov said. "We must also restore our credibility with the IOC."
Rakhimov’s accession to the top of amateur boxing's world governing body came a month after the U.S. Treasury Department, under its "Kingpin" sanctions act, linked him to a notorious international criminal network known as "thieves-in-law."
John E. Smith, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), describes thieves-in-law as "a Eurasian crime syndicate that has been linked to a long list of illicit activity across the globe."
Smith said the syndicate was designated "as part of a broader strategy to disrupt the financial infrastructure of transnational criminal organizations" posing a threat to the United States and its allies.
Thieves-in-law originated in Stalinist prison camps during the Soviet era.
In its statement linking Rakhimov to the network, the U.S. Treasury Department said members were "initiated or 'crowned' after demonstrating an 'ideal' criminal biography and take an oath to uphold a code that includes living exclusively off their criminal profits and supporting other thieves-in-law."
The statement said thieves-in-law have "grown into a vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States," engaging in crimes like money laundering, extortion, bribery, and robbery.
Rakhimov was designated by the Treasury Department "for providing material support" to the criminal syndicate.
"Rakhimov has collaborated with thieves-in law on business" and has helped the syndicate "by providing warnings of law enforcement issues, arranging meetings, and addressing other problems," the Treasury Department said.
"Rakhimov has been described as having moved from extortion and car theft to becoming one of Uzbekistan's leading criminals and an important person involved in the heroin trade," it said.
The United States first imposed financial sanctions on Rakhimov in 2012 when it linked him with criminal bosses from Russia and other former Soviet republics.
He carries a Russian passport and five "alternative" passports from Uzbekistan, and his current addresses are listed as a central Moscow luxury apartment on Leninsky Prospekt and a luxury villa in Dubai.
Rakhimov has also been associated with Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who is on the Treasury Department's so-called "Kremlin List" of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Usmanov denies any serious business connections with Rakhimov.
The 66-year old Rakhimov began boxing in Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era youth programs before becoming a coach.
Shahida Tulaganova, an international correspondent from Uzbekistan who formerly worked as a BBC producer and RFE/RL reporter, says Rakhimov set up his initial private businesses in Tashkent under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Those firms imported and exported consumer goods and raw materials.
"After Uzbekistan became independent in August 1991, especially during the first two years after the Soviet collapse, it was absolutely essential for President Islam Karimov's hold on power to ensure there were no revolts by providing people with basic foodstuffs," Tulaganova explains.
"Rakhimov was instrumental in bringing things like sugar into Uzbekistan for sale," she says.
"Then he became known as a figure of authority in Uzbekistan, not only in terms of his financial wealth but, more importantly, because of his links to the criminal world and to President Karimov," Tulaganova adds.
As he grew richer, Rakhimov’s influence in Uzbekistan's state-run sports sector grew through his sponsorship of boxing, wrestling, martial arts, and weightlifting.
That positioned him to provide amateur Uzbek athletes as bodyguards for politicians and criminal bosses during the volatile 1990s.
Rakhimov later exported cotton from Uzbekistan -- a lucrative business controlled by members of the National Security Service that relies on the forced labor of children and state employees.
Tulaganova says Rakhimov's associates also set up Zeromax LLC in 1999 in the United States -- a company that partnered with Uzbekistan's state-owned food distribution company Tijorat before it was taken over in 2005 by Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, through the Swiss-registered Zeromax GmbH.
As the largest investor in Uzbekistan's economy, companies under the Swiss-registered Zeromax umbrella were involved in food processing, textiles and cotton production, natural gas, oil, gold extraction, and the sports sector.
But Tulaganova said Rakhimov fell out with Karimov and had lost most of his business holdings in Uzbekistan by 2010 when Zeromax GmbH declared bankruptcy.
By some estimates, Zeromax owed its creditors $500 million in unpaid debts when its assets were seized by Uzbekistan's government -- a development that also marked the end of Gulnara Karimova's prospects as a possible successor to her father.
Rakhimov was banned from entering Australia to attend the 2000 Olympics in Sydney because of his alleged mafia connections.
But his profile in international sports administration continued to rise after he was elected in 2001 and 2005 as vice president of Uzbekistan’s National Olympic Committee.
He also served as Asian Boxing Confederation president along with his 15 years as AIBA vice president.
Decisions by referees and judges at the 2016 Olympics in Rio led to widespread match-fixing allegations and ignited bitter infighting within AIBA.
In the men’s heavyweight final, Russian world champion Yevegny Tishchenko was awarded all three rounds against Kazakhstan's Vassily Levit -- despite sustaining a cut to his head and spending much of the fight on the defensive.
The crowd booed the unanimous decision to award Tishchenko the gold.
The U.S. team was shocked when middleweight boxer Gary Russell knocked down Uzbekistan's Fazliddin Gaibnazarov in the quarterfinals but lost in a split-decision.
But it was the outcry over a unanimous decision to award Russian Vladimir Nikitin a bantamweight quarterfinal victory against Ireland's Michael Conlan that led AIBA to suspend all boxing referees and judges at Rio.
Conlan cursed the decision in a post-bout interview with Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE.
"AIBA cheats," Conlan said. "I'll never box for AIBA again. They're cheating bastards. They're paying everybody.... They're known for being cheats and they'll always be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top."
Altogether, Uzbekistan won three golds, two silvers, and two bronze medals in boxing at Rio. Russia took one gold and three bronzes.
The IOC says AIBA still has not provided "a satisfying explanation" in response to Rio's match-fixing allegations.
AIBA's biggest financial scandal is over a $10 million loan it received in 2010 from Azerbaijan's private Benkons Group and never repaid.
Under pressure from the IOC in 2015, then-AIBA President Wu Chin Kuo ordered the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to investigate the organization's possible financial problems.
That unreleased but leaked report revealed such widespread irregularities that the auditors suggested AIBA hire a criminal lawyer.
It said AIBA, a Swiss-based organization, possibly broke Swiss law by failing to account in its books for $4.5 million of the loan that was missing.
Neither the auditors nor AIBA have been able to say where those missing funds went.
Wu, who is alleged to have personally negotiated the loan during a 2009 visit to Baku, was eventually suspended over the scandal before resigning as AIBA's president in November 2017.
He was temporarily replaced by Italy's Franco Falcinelli until January, when Falcinelli's surprise resignation cleared the way for Rakhimov's appointment.
Within days of taking office, Rakhimov announced an out-of-court settlement with Benkons Group. That settlement calls for $8 million of debt to be turned into a sponsorship deal. The remaining $2 million is to be repaid in installments beginning in 2021.
Rakhimov said in a statement the settlement "represents a significant step toward restoring the financial confidence and proper governance at AIBA because if the matter had been left open we could have faced bankruptcy."
Meanwhile, AIBA said its decision to appoint Rakhimov as the head of the "new leadership is another positive development, which should be welcomed by the IOC."
But the IOC says AIBA's governance reforms must progress further if boxing is to remain an Olympic sport.