An alleged Russian mobster was arrested in Italy yesterday and charged with conspiring to fix the outcomes of the ice dancing and pairs figure skating competitions at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
According to a sealed complaint filed in federal court on July 22, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov used his influence with Russian and French skating officials to guarantee that, in exchange for the vote of French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne for the Russian pairs team, the Russians would ensure that the French team won the gold medal in ice dancing.
The arrest could shed light on lingering questions surrounding the controversy that arose at the Winter Games in February. After the pairs competition, Le Gougne admitted voting for the Russian team under pressure from French skating federation president Didier Gailhaguet. The ensuing flap resulted in duplicate gold medals being awarded to the Canadian pair, which had finished second.
The suspect "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,' " James B. Comey, U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District, said at a news conference yesterday.
The International Skating Union investigated rumors of such an arrangement this spring, but were unable to uncover evidence of a conspiracy. Le Gougne and Gailhaguet were suspended for three years by the ISU in late April for their role in rigging the pairs event.
The case against Tokhtakhounov -- who U.S. officials say is either 62 or 53, was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and is a Russian citizen -- arose out of an investigation into organized crime that has been underway for years. Italian officials uncovered the alleged fix while monitoring the defendant's telephone in Italy and contacted New York authorities, according to Comey.
Italian agents recorded numerous conversations in which Tokhtakhounov discussed rigging the Olympic competitions with various skating officials and even French ice dancer Marina Anissina, who along with Gwendal Peizerat won the gold medal. According to transcripts provided in the complaint, Anissina knew of Tokhtakhounov's attempt to fix the competition.
Anissina was performing for Queen Elizabeth in London yesterday and was not available to comment, according to her agent Liz DeSevo. Her partner, Peizerat, told the Associated Press: "I have never heard of this man." The duo retired immediately after the Salt Lake Games.
Tokhtakhounov, who had lived in France but been forced to leave the country, engineered the scheme in part to earn an extension of his French visa from French officials, according to the complaint. Italian authorities arrested Tokhtakhounov in northern Italy at one of his three homes there. He is charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery related to sporting contests and faces 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. The United States will seek extradition of Tokhtakhounov for prosecution in 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," Comey said.
On Feb. 11, in the finals of the pairs event, Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze topped the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by a 5-4 judges' margin. After Le Gougne admitted to voting under pressure from Gailhaguet, the International Olympic Committee awarded a second gold medal to Sale and Pelletier.
Anissina, who was born in Russia, and Peizerat also won the gold by a 5-4 judges' margin, topping the Russian team of Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh in the ice dance final a week later. Lithuanians Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who finished fifth, protested their finish after the Italian and Canadian pairs fell during the final phase of the competition yet still finished higher in the standings. The ISU rejected the protest.
Both Gailhaguet and Le Gougne originally professed their innocence and vowed to fight the ISU's suspensions, but Gailhaguet later changed his mind and Le Gougne recently withdrew her appeal. Gailhaguet was interviewed by the FBI, according to the complaint. Comey said the government's investigation is continuing.
U.S. and Italian law enforcement officials had been watching Tokhtakhounov for years, Comey said. Tokhtakhounov has been a well-known figure in Russian criminal circles going back a decade and has lived in Paris in recent years, according to past Russian media reports. Tokhtakhounov once was a player with the Pakhtakor soccer team in Tashkent, and later manager of the Soviet army soccer club before moving into more illicit business using the alias Taiwanchik, according to a 1997 reference guide to the Russian mafia.
The report, entitled "Organized Crime in the Russian Federation" and compiled by the Service for Political Information and Consulting, a research group, called Tokhtakhounov "a professional card-player, a specialist in money laundering [and] a thieves' representative in Germany." Tokhtakhounov had been involved in drug distribution, illegal firearms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles, according to an April 2001 Interpol report.
According to the complaint, Tokhtakhounov suggested in a recorded phone call that the mother of Anissina -- who is identified only as the "female ice dancer" -- called Tokhtakhounov regarding the Olympics, and he and another figure in organized crime agreed to help her, vowing to invoke the aid of an unnamed Russian figure skating official.
In a conversation on Feb. 12, Tokhtakhounov allegedly celebrated the vote of Le Gougne for the Russian pair, saying "our Sikharulidze fell, the Canadians were 10 times better, and in spite of that, the French with their vote gave us first place." In a later conversation with Anissina's mother, Tokhtakhounov allegedly assured her: "We are going to make [Anissina] an Olympic champion. . . . The French helped the pair figure skating, gave the last vote . . . for this we will make [Anissina], even if she falls, we will make sure she is number one."
The unidentified Russian official allegedly told Tokhtakhounov that he would tell Anissina that she should help him "with something," apparently in reference to his visa problems in France.
These revelations will again raise questions regarding the credibility of figure skating, which is subjectively judged and thus susceptible to manipulation. The ISU took steps in June to make its judging system more objective. Judges will be chosen at random and their identities will remain anonymous.
ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta could not be reached to comment yesterday.
"This kind of alleged activity has no place in the Olympic movement," the IOC said in a statement from spokesman Mike Kontos. "At this early stage, we will wait for the U.S. judicial process to take its course, but we will be following the developments very closely."
U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Lloyd Ward also issued a statement, saying the organization was "deeply concerned" with the charges against Tokhtakhounov. "This goes to the heart and soul of the Olympic ideals that our athletes practice every day," he said.
Correspondent Peter Baker in Moscow and staff writer Christine Haughney in New York contributed to this report.