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FBI files charges in Olympic scandal

July 31, 2002 at 8:21 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, July 31 (UPI) -- Federal prosecutors and the FBI jointly announced Wednesday that an investigation showed the worst officiating scandal in the history of the Winter Olympics had its roots in Russian organized crime.

Following a probe conducted with the help of Interpol and one that included extensive wiretaps, proported Russian mobster was arrested in Italy Wednesday on charges he conspired to fix both the pairs and ice dancing competitions at this year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The allegations mirror reports at the time that both events had been rigged so a Russian couple could win the pairs and a French team could capture the ice dancing gold medal.

"This investigation furthur establishes the sweeping negative influence of organized crime in the international community," said James B. Comey, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

"Even the Olympic Games, which are designed to be the pinnacle of peaceful international competition, are not off limits to organized crime figures."

At a news conference, Comey and Kevin P. Donovan, Assistant Director of the FBI's New York office, announced the arrest of Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov at his residence in northern Italy. According to a sealed complaint filed in New York on July 22, Tokhtakhounov is a major figure in international Eurasian organized crime.

A statement issued at the news conference said Tokhtakhounov, "used his influence with members of the Russian and French skating federations in order to fix the outcome of the pairs figure skating and ice dancing competitions at the 2002 Winter Olympics."

According to the complaint, Tokhtakhounov and others, "agreed that as a quid pro quo, in return for the French judge's vote for the Russian pairs figure skating team, which enabled the Russian team to win the gold medal, the Russians would ensure that the French ice dancing team, which included a female ice dancer of Russian descent, would win the gold medal in tht competition."

The complaint also alleges a wiretap picked up Tokhtakhounov's voice telling a women --- "we are going to make your daughter an Olympic champion. Even if she falls."

That scenario was exactly the one suggested in various reports during the Olympics when the outcome of the pairs event touched off a furor throughout the skating world.

In that competition, Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the gold medal over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by a 5-4 vote. Most neutral observers felt there was no question the Canadians outskated the Russians that night, especially since the Russians had two significant stumbles in their routine.

Afterwards, reports accused French judge Maria-Reine Le Gougne of being persuaded by members of her national skating federation to vote for the Russians so that the French ice dancing team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat would receive a favorable vote when they competed during the second week of the Olympics.

Le Gouge at first admitted she had been pressured, then denied it and finally, after an investigation by the International Skating Union, was banned from judging for three years and was barred from participation in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. French figure skating President Didier Gailhaguet received the same punishment.

Because of the outcry over the pairs judging, the Canadians were eventually awarded their own gold medal -- although the Russians were able to keep their first-place award.

Le Gouge and Gailhaguet at first appealed the ISU's decision, but earlier this month they dropped those appeals.

At the time of the competition, Gailhaguet blamed the controversy on the media.

"The North American press is very powerful," he said at the time. "There were 1,750 journalists covering this matter. The federation and its judge were dirtied in a media campaign without precedent.

"It was total nonsense to award two gold medals."

There were even complaints at the time from Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"Juan Antonio Samaranch (who retired as president of the IOC last year) has gone and Jacques Rogge has taken his place," Putin said during a news conference at which he decried what he perceived to be anti-Russian judging. "Regrettably for the new leadership, the first time is bound to be a flop."

The motive for Tokhtakhounov, according to the complaint, was a complicated attempt to regain his French visa. Tokhtakhounov was born in Uzbekistan, but has a Russian passport.

"This scheme was carried out, in part, to enable Tokhtakhounov to generate goodwill with the French authorities in order to obtain an extension of his French visa," the statement said. "Tokhtakhounov had lived in France, but had been forced to leave that country. Tokhtakhounov relocated to Italy, where he resigned until his arrest."

Comey and Donovan said the United States will seek the extradition of Tokhtakhounov from Italy and would be brought to New York to face prosecution.

He is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery related to sporting contests. Both offenses carry a maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a maximum fine of $250,000. There was no mention of a dollar figure in the alleged bribery charge.

"The defendant is charged with using his access and influence to manipulate the results of the Games for his own personal gain," Comey said. "This investigation is an extraordinary example of the benefits that can come from cooperation among international law enforcement agencies."

Comey said the investigation will continue and that other arrests could be made. One of the unexplained questions at the time of the pairs event was why, if the Canadians were so superior in their performance, did five judges vote for the Russians.

Not only did the now-banned Franch judge cast her vote for the Russian pair, but so did judges from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and China.

"Americans and people around the world are captivated by athletic competition," Donovan said. "As spectators, we marvel at the skill, strength, endurance, grace and determination of the competitors.

"We understand that certain athletic competitions have a subjective element, but we expect the judging to be free of undue influence. The corruption at the 2002 Winter Olympic skating events is not only a crime, but an assault on the ideal of untainted athletic competition. It is further evidence that organized crime corupts everything it touches.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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