Russia's deadly sports

Killing for profits: Organized crime muscles in to exploit teams' right to import tax-free cigarettes, liquor.

February 03, 2000

JUST days before Russian figure skating queen Maria Buturskaya was to defend her world championship in December, someone firebombed her new BMW. No wonder her shaky performance cost her the title.

Two weeks earlier, Alexander Kurtiyan, the $1-million midfielder on a St. Petersburg soccer club, was badly beaten near his home.

Those two athletes were lucky. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, more than a dozen high-profile Russian sports figures -- boxers, umpires, ice hockey stars, club managers and promoters -- have been murdered. Countless others have had acid thrown on their faces or have been otherwise maimed. The reason: They refused to play ball with mobsters.

Over the years, organized crime figures have sought to gain control of individual sports clubs and central organizations. Not because they love sports. But because President Boris N. Yeltsin gave sports organizations the right to import tax-free cigarettes and liquor which then could be sold at an enormous profit.

"Our hockey is now so corrupt I don't see how we can ever clean it up," Valentin Sych, who headed the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, said two and a half years ago. He was slain shortly afterward.

In the past two years, investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman and PBS' "Frontline" have linked some National Hockey League players from Russia with the mob.

While the league and the players have denied such affiliations, suspicions persist.

Russian players should not be hounded because of their nationality. But the mob takeover of Russian sports is now so complete, U.S. regulators should be extraordinarily vigilant against organized crime from that country.

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