Russian Sports Official Is Slain In Apparent Contract Shooting

Murder Of President Of National Hockey Group Linked To Organized Crime

April 23, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In a shocking reminder of the links between crime and sport in Russia today, the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation was killed yesterday in a spray of automatic gunfire from a van parked near his country home.

The murder of Valentin Sych was the third apparent contract killing of a Russian hockey official in the past year.

Police, who rarely solve any of Moscow's annual 250-plus contract murders, said they had no immediate clue to the motive for the slaying of Sych, 60, whose national hockey squad was to fly today to Helsinki for the world championships.

But the sports world was abuzz with its own conclusions.

"Hockey has nothing to do with what happened to him," said Lev Rossoshik, deputy editor in chief of Sport Express, a Russian sports daily newspaper.

It was the dirty business that has grown up around the ailing Russian hockey world that is most likely responsible, he said.

Russian hockey is a symbol of the fallen Soviet sports system, that once-dominant creator of world champions in everything from gymnastics to Greco-Roman wrestling.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union, sports lost all state support.

And Russian athletes -- who prefer BMWs to gold medals and the glory of the motherland -- have defected for better prospects abroad.

The NHL employs more than 100 of Russia's best young hockey players.

Editor Rossoshik says the real problems for the Russian hockey world started when the federal government granted special tax-exempt status in 1993 to sports organizations.

As much as $200 million in tax breaks a month were given to sports organizations, such as the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.

The exemptions allowed groups to import liquor, cigarettes and electronic items tax-free.

That exemption was revoked in 1995.

But, says Rossoshik, it had become a lucrative lure for organized crime and opened the door to unseemly wheeling and dealing.

"Hypothetically, you could ask, what happened to people who had taken on big financial responsibilities because of the tax privileges? What happened when the tax privileges were revoked? How were they supposed to fulfill their obligations?" asks Rossoshik, who says he knows nothing specific about Sych's affairs except that the former Communist Party sports bureaucrat "was not a poor man."

Sych, himself, had spoken out recently against the involvement in sports of Russia's thriving criminal underworld and mafia-style crime gangs.

He told Reuters in an interview in February that criminal activity in Russian sports was getting worse and that many players and officials were scared by organized crime and facing pressure to abet illegal ventures.

President Boris N. Yeltsin himself was embarrassed by the sports-crime link last year when his appointee heading the wealthy National Sports Fund -- the biggest beneficiary of the tax-exempt status -- was shot and knifed.

Boris Fyodorov survived the attack and returned to accuse senior Kremlin aides of siphoning cash out of the fund.

In Moscow last July, a Red Army hockey team administrator -- who dealt with ticket revenues -- was shot nine times outside the club's Moscow offices.

And in June, Alexander Kornyev, the general director of the Spartak professional hockey club in Yekaterinburg, was gunned down outside his home.

Neither case has been solved.

And in a bizarre twist in the hard times former Soviet hockey has fallen on, Ukrainian hockey star Oleg Tverdovsky's mother was kidnapped in January by the player's former coach.

The coach demanded $200,000, an amount he felt he was entitled to as a share of Tverdovsky's $4.2 million contract to play for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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