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A Gold for a Gold…and a Visa Too?

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

Somewhere, the ghost of Boris Badenov is snickering with malevolent glee. Rocky and Bullwinkle’s cartoon nemesis must be grateful that Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov is carrying on the great tradition of Russian nogoodnik.

Italian and U.S. officials last week fingered Tokhtakhounov, 53, a bull-headed Uzbek long linked with the Russian Mafia, as the mind behind the skating scandal at last winter’s Salt Lake City Olympics, when tumble-down Russian pairs skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won gold over Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, the Canadian duo who gave a demonstrably superior performance. Now implicated in the mess are the gold-winning French ice-dance team of Russian-born Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat. Anissina and her mother are the two women believed to be caught on tape talking with Tokhtakhounov. As many as six judges could be involved in the scam. On hearing the charges, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge pronounced himself shocked and said it was possible the results of the ice-dance competition would be recalculated. “We will rule out nothing,” he declared. Yet the suspicion lingers that the skating establishment protects its own. One month after being suspended for his role in the disputed pairs result in Salt Lake, Didier Gailhaguet was re-elected head of the French skating federation.

U.S. Attorney James Comey, who announced the indictment in New York City, alleged that 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.'” The gold for Tokhtakhounov, Comey said, was to be the renewal of his expired French visa–which he never got. A simpler explanation might be that this tough guy was doing a favor for an even tougher mama.

The conversations between Tokhtakhounov and a woman believed to be Anissina’s mother Irina Chernieva–a former Olympic figure skater who strenuously promoted Marina’s career–were startling if not downright incriminating. In one, the Uzbek promised, “We are going to make your daughter an Olympic champion. Even if she falls, we will make sure she is No. 1.” In another, a Frenchman called Chevalier (presumably a cohort) is heard assuring the Uzbek, “Even if the Canadians are 10 times better, the French with their vote have given them [the Russians] first place. You understand?”

Viewers of high-level skating competitions understand. They have often wondered whether to believe their own eyes or the judges’ contrary numbers. Didn’t the judges see one team fall down and another skate perfectly? Then why vote for the stumblers over Fred and Ginger? Are the experts knaves or fools?

The answer, at least in Salt Lake City, was that some of them were foolish to think their knavery would go undetected. A day after the pairs final, a French judge admitted she had been pressured to favor the Russians’ klutzy turn over the Canadians’ sublime skate. The ensuing uproar, which resulted in the awarding of gold medals to both teams, cast a pall on the International Skating Union and the high-strung community of ice divas. But until now, who imagined it was a Mob job?

To his neighbors in the posh Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi, Tokhtakhounov is a courteous, quiet gent often surrounded by gorgeous cars and fast women. To the Italian finance police and the American FBI, which have been tailing him for at least a year, he is a suspect in drug dealing, arms trafficking and money laundering–an international sleaze king with influential friends among Russian celebrities and Kremlin politicos.

But no one connected Tokhtakhounov to the Salt Lake caper until May, when the fbi obtained and translated wiretaps that the Italians recorded during the Olympics. Imagine their surprise at hearing Tokhtakhounov spell out his Olympic machinations. The U.S. issued a complaint charging him with two counts of conspiracy to commit sports bribery, and Italy slapped him into a Venice jail to await extradition. “He is astonished at the accusations,” said his Italian lawyer Luca Saldarelli. “He is not interested in ice skating.”

Yet there’s no question that Tokhtakhounov is something of a sport. In the ’60s he played soccer for Pakhtakor, the Uzbek Republic’s team. “It is true he has some friends who are athletes,” said Saldarelli, “but only soccer players.”

Hmmm. All those upsets in the World Cup this June–could they have been guided by the crafty hand of…Boris Badenov?

–Reported by Mimi Murphy/Rome, Alice Park/New York, Elaine Shannon/Washington and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow

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