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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sports Russia Invokes Bad Memories

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It is hard not to be at least a little bit skeptical about the motives behind the creation of the Kremlin-backed sports organization Sportivnaya Rossiya, or Sporting Russia, which had its founding congress in Luzhniki Stadium on Friday.

Vyacheslav Fetisov, head of the State Sports Committee and a former hockey star, was unanimously elected chairman of the organization although there wasn't much competition. In keeping with the best of Soviet traditions, there was no other candidate.

While the professed aims of Sporting Russia seem noble enough -- to revive Russia's sporting tradition and assist in implementing government sports policy -- it is hard to shake off the impression that we have been here before.

In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin's friend and tennis coach Shamil Tarpischev (later sports minister) set up the National Sports Fund, ostensibly to provide financial aid to sports. However, the fund, which enjoyed incredibly lucrative exemptions from paying duties on imported alcohol and cigarettes, rapidly became a slush fund for the Yeltsin administration -- with a large chunk of the money apparently being siphoned off into various people's pockets. It ran until 1996, when Tarpishchev's high-level protectors fell out of favor with the president and finally Tarpishchev himself was booted out.

But lo and behold: Among those on the 31-member Sportivnaya Rossiya council is none other than Shamil Tarpishchev.

Post-Soviet Russia has had an unhappy history of entanglement between the sports world and the criminal underworld, starting with Otari Kvantrishvili, the well-known wrestler and reputed mafia godfather who created the short-lived Party of Sportsmen in 1993 before meeting with an untimely end.

Of course, Sporting Russia is a far cry from all this. It has the backing of President Vladimir Putin, and its council is stacked with heavyweights such as Alexander Karelin, ex-Olympic wrestler and Unity member; Education Minister Vladimir Filippov; Norilsk Nickel CEO Mikhail Prokhorov; and Gazprom deputy head Boris Yurlov.

Although strenuously denied, it is clear that Sporting Russia has the potential to mutate into a political organization, possibly offering its services to the party of power as the State Duma elections approach. Indeed, there are plans to set up a newspaper, magazine and television channel. Also, with its high-level connections, the organization has great potential as a lobbying outfit, for projects sports-related and totally unrelated.

However, much remains unclear, not least why Fetisov rejected a well-paid NHL coaching job to become sports committee head with a salary of less than $200 per month.