Scandal puts skating on thin ice

Italian police say 6 judges may have been contacted

Figure Skating

August 02, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As the police continue to allege unseemly ties between a Russian linked to organized crime and figure-skating judges at the Salt Lake Winter Games, the stunned caretakers of the sport wonder if it can survive a scandal that could expose widespread corruption.

The plot that Tonya Harding hatched with a band of Keystone thugs to whack Nancy Kerrigan left audiences riveted, but the possible infiltration of organized crime into figure skating threatens to disengage audiences, to scare away future Olympians and to suspend the sport as an Olympic competition, skating officials agree.

"So much has happened in the past - Tonya and Nancy, everything - but this could reach a whole new level as far as damage to the sport," said Claire Ferguson, who recently relinquished her seat on the International Skating Union's council. "It's very serious and frightening. No one knows what is coming next."

Yesterday, the Italian police said Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who was accused by U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday of fixing two skating events so he could obtain a visa to return to France, might have contacted as many as six judges in his efforts to arrange a gold medal for the Russians in the pairs competition in exchange for a victory by the French ice dancing team.

"We have recorded a conversation in which the suspect indicates that six judges may have been involved," police Col. Giovanni Mainolfi said yesterday in Venice. "However, we have no specific evidence against these judges at this time."

Tokhtakhounov was expected to plead not guilty to all charges and fight extradition, his lawyer, Luca Salvarelli, told the Associated Press. "According to what his relatives told me, he will deny any wrongdoing," Salvarelli said.

Olympic and figure-skating officials have been deeply disheartened by developments over the last 24 hours. "While we knew from previous investigations that the judgment in the pairs figure skating was not correct," said Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, "we are shocked to learn of the alleged involvement of organized crime."

In April, the ISU handed out three-year suspensions to Marie-Reine le Gougne, a French skating judge, and to Didier Gailhaguet, the head of the French skating federation. After the pairs competition, le Gougne admitted to being pressured by Gailhaguet to side with the Russian pairs team during the competition. Le Gougne later retracted that statement. She said the pressure actually came from Canadian officials.

Ottavio Cinquanta, the president of the ISU, said yesterday that at no time did reports of an organized-crime connection surface in the evidence the council gathered against le Gougne and Gailhaguet. He said he did not know Tokhtakhounov, nor had he ever heard of him. In a statement, Cinquanta said, "The ISU will closely follow the U.S. criminal charges and cooperate with law enforcement authorities.

"The ISU will formally ask the relevant authorities to make available any information and/or evidence related to possible misconduct," the statement added.

In recent years, there have been some unsettling episodes in the figure-skating world. Two years ago, a BMW belonging to Maria Butyrskaya, an elite Russian skater, was mysteriously blown up outside her apartment in Moscow. "In top-level sports, the stakes are high," Butyrskaya said at the time. "I guess some people were willing to go to any lengths to get me out of their way."

In March, at the world skating championships in Nagano, Japan, an American judge in the ice-dancing competition, Sharon Rogers, said she was awakened in the middle of the night by a threatening caller.

At the same competition, Lithuania's top ice-dancing team, Povilas Vanagas and Margarita Drobiazko, both of whom protested their controversial fourth-place finish behind Israel, were overheard offering an unsettling assessment of their sport to Canadian television.

"I listened as they were asked, `Why are you choosing to retire now when you're getting popular and getting accolades?' " said Judy Blumberg, who dominated ice dancing in the United States in the 1980s. "One of them said: `We're really scared for our lives. Now that we're out of way, I'm scared for the Canadians because someone will have them killed.' I thought, come on."

Now, Blumberg added, she's not sure what to think. "Was there pressure out there before now?" she said. "I suspect as much. But when it really came into play was when this started to be a business. That's when everything started going down."

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