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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Olympic Fix Scandal Echoes Soviet Times

The turbulent recent history of the former Soviet Union is packed with events that suggest -- in some cases as fleetingly as a photograph, in others as powerfully as a fatal gunshot -- connections between organized crime and sports.

The latest allegations charge a reputed mobster from Uzbekistan with fixing two premier Olympic ice skating events. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov denies the accusations, as do Russia skaters and sports official -- who ridicule the very idea that athletes would need help winning gold in a sport they have dominated for decades.

The case against Tokhtakhounov has yet to go to court. But in other cases the tie between crime and sports is clear.

In 1994, a reputed crime boss who headed a foundation for retired athletes was gunned down in Moscow. Russia's top ice hockey official was shot dead in April 1997 after speaking out about the growing influence of organized crime in sports. Two months later, the female director of Spartak Moscow met the same fate.

"These links go back to Soviet times, when sports was a big criminal sphere," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. Top athletes were relatively well-paid and had many advantages, including the ability to travel abroad and buy coveted Western goods.

"It was a nourishing environment for the development of crime," Volk said.

The 1991 Soviet breakup sent the process into overdrive. As the economy collapsed and simultaneously opened up, criminals sought control of the oil, gas and metal industries -- and of athletes, who began competing outside the country more often and earned hard currency.

"This attracted the interest of the criminal world," said Volk. "Many athletes had to resort to 'roofs"' -- Russian slang for protection rackets. "That is, they had to pay one group of bandits to protect them from another."

According to a 1997 U.S. Senate investigation, a "significant portion" of NHL players from the former Soviet Union were the targets of extortion -- in some cases by mob figures who demanded six-figure payments in exchange for not harming relatives back home.

Within Russia, aging athletes with little prospects for the future, and younger ones who were not among the best, were recruited into private security units or criminal gangs -- groups that in many cases were virtually indistinguishable.

The sports and crime worlds were drawn even closer together in the mid-1990s with the creation of the National Sports Fund, a group set up under the aegis of President Boris Yeltsin's tennis partner and sports minister to revive Russian sports.

The fund was among special interest groups that enjoyed vastly profitable exemptions from tariffs on imported alcohol and cigarettes -- privileges that invited corruption and drew criminal elements.

"Moscow at the time was divided among 20 criminal groups, and each had its own spheres of influence and its own people in the National Sports Fund," said Ruslan Dubov, sports editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

The privileges "enriched organized crime, not our athletes," said Volk.

In 1996, a former head of the National Sports Fund, Boris Fyodorov, survived a shooting and stabbing attack. Otari Kvantrishvili, a former wrestling coach who headed a fund for retired athletes, was fatally shot in 1994 outside a bathhouse in the Moscow neighborhood reportedly controlled by his criminal gang.

Athletic groups no longer enjoy tariff exemptions, but President Vladimir Putin -- a judo enthusiast -- has called for more state support for sports.

"As long as it enjoys at least some privileges, sports in Russia will always be attractive to organized crime," Dubov said.

He said that while it is difficult to make money legally through sport, criminals use sports to launder money, and corruption is fairly widespread. He said fixing soccer games is a common practice -- and that oddsmakers refused to take bets on the last match of the Russian championship last year because the outcome was widely known in advance.

Violence has also persisted, though it is less common than in the 1990s.

In one of the few reported incidents of violence involving skaters, world champion Maria Butyrskaya's car exploded outside her apartment building on the eve of the Russian Figure Skating Championships in December 1999. "In top-level sports, the stakes are high," she said at the time.

For criminals today, Volk said, the stakes in dealings with sports figures or judges could include a cut of the rich advertising revenues Russian athletes command. For men like Tokhtakhounov, who in many cases moved abroad to enjoy fortunes made in the 1990s, fostering friendships with athletes can boost their business and their reputation.

"It is a form of investment," Volk said.

Meeting with athletes and show business figures from the former Soviet Union, Tokhtakhounov has cultivated the image of a patron of the arts among Russians in Europe -- an image his celebrity acquaintances say is more accurate than U.S. prosecutors' description of a "major figure in international Eurasian organized crime."

Tokhtakhounov called the allegations that he was at the heart of the worst judging scandal in Olympic history a farce, according to his lawyer.

While ties between sports and crime seem to "have been cultivated more on a high level in the Soviet Union and Russia" than elsewhere, he said, sports competitions involving judges are "a sphere that has been corrupted not just today, and not just by Russians."