Losing Face With the Mob?

This was the kind of dizzy scheme that could get a wise guy kicked out of the Russian mafia. Or laughed out. Smuggling, da. Extortion, da. Murder, da. Fixing figure skating, nyet.

Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, arrested last week in Italy on U.S. charges that he fixed the pairs and ice dancing in a vote-swapping deal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, is described as a Russian crime boss operating out of southern France.

Didn't he ever see "The French Connection?" Bad guys deal in heroin, not tights and flouncy blouses. If he beats the rap with the feds, he better watch out for Boris the Butcher and his other mafia buddies for embarrassing them. Fixing a fight or an election is one thing. But figure skating? Arnold Rothstein must be spinning in his grave.

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Rothstein was a true hero to sports fixers. His 1919 World Series scam with the Chicago Black Sox was a work of art, as such things go, and he made a killing. Frankie Carbo an Blinky Palermo in boxing, Jack Molinas and Henry Hill in basketball -- they were fixers who knew how to cash in, at least until they were caught.

Tokhtakhounov supposedly pulled off this fix just for a French visa. He could have bought one on the streets of Marseilles or Milan for the price of a meal. Maybe it'll turn out that Tokhtakhounov is really Tonya Harding in disguise. That could make the Russian mafia think twice about bumping him or her off.

Then again, there's a photo of an "Alim-Jean Tokhtakhounov" in Paris in 1999 linking arms with Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Ukrainian player Andrei Medvedev on Medvedev's official web site. Tokhtakhounov often spends time with Russian tennis players and socializes with Russian and former Soviet show business stars, Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets said Thursday.

There has to be more to this case than the feds are letting on. No legitimate crime boss could be so dumb as to risk his career for a couple of gold medals and a visa.

The attorney for the French judge in the middle of the Olympic scandal, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, tells an interesting story. Amid the uproar in Salt Lake City in February, an FBI agent quietly sought out Le Gougne to ask if she knew a Russian mobster who lived in the south of France.

The Russian's name was Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The agent said he was following a tip from an anonymous source in London that a deal had been reached between French skating federation president Didier Gailhaguet and Tokhtakhounov: If Gailhaguet fixed the pairs event, Tokhtakhounov would give $1 million to the French hockey team.

"It sounds like science fiction to me," Le Gougne's attorney, Erik Christiansen, told the agent. Why anyone would want to give $1 million to the French hockey team is as unfathomable as why anyone would want to fix ice dancing. But with all the loony cartoon characters in this evolving tale, anything's possible.

In the official version, Tokhtakhounov "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'll be a little gold for me,'" U.S. Attorney James Comey said, quoting conversations heard through wiretaps.

Prosecutors said Tokhtakhounov hoped he would be rewarded with a visa to return to France, where he once lived. Seems like a lot of trouble for a visa.

After meeting with the FBI agent during the Games, Christiansen spoke with Le Gougne about Tokhtakhounov. "She never heard of him, she'd never met with him, she'd never seen him, she'd never spoken with him," Christiansen said.

The FBI never approached Le Gougne again, and Tokhtakhounov's name didn't come up at the International Skating Union inquiry that resulted in Le Gougne's suspension.

Another curious theory to explain some of the shenanigans was put forth by an attorney who represents pairs referee Ron Pfenning and international judge Jon Jackson. They were key witnesses against Le Gougne during the ISU investigation and at the hearing in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she and Gailhaguet were banned for three years, plus the 2006 Games.

After Tokhtakhounov's arrest, the attorney, Benjamin Kaplan, said Pfenning and Jackson want to see a wider investigation by the ISU into figure skating corruption. "I'm pleased because obviously there were a lot of suspicions that it wasn't the French alone, that the Russians were deeply involved, and this confirms it,'' Kaplan said. "Just like men in power used to have ballerinas in Russia, now the thing is to have champion skaters or other champions in other sports. The Russian mafia is deep into sport."

It's a frightening thought: scar-faced Russian mobsters sipping vodka while debating whether a skater's turquoise sequined blouse clashes with his partner's mauve feathers and who should be paid off to help them win.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press, for which he wrote this comment.