Games-fix allegations outrage Russians

Many refuse to believe skating `gold' not earned

IOC considers changing scores

August 03, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Now that a Russian has been charged with trying to fix two Winter Olympics skating events, many Russians are reacting with outrage - not against the alleged wrongdoer but against his American accusers.

A Russian linked with organized crime interfering with the Olympics? How could it be?

"In the times of the Soviet Union," Vladislav Shchitnikovich, a prosperous young trader in eggs and dairy products, observed yesterday, "nobody would dare to speak against us. And it was clear and evident for everybody that the Soviet school of figure skating was the strongest in the world. But now, they dare."

As for the charges by U.S. prosecutors that Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 53, tried to fix the outcome of the pairs figure skating and ice dancing competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics - "I don't believe it," Shchitnikovich said.

His views are widely shared. While Russians are painfully aware that they lag behind the West in economic development, health and the quality of life, athletics remains a source of national pride. Ice skating is a national obsession, and few events of the past year upset Russians more than the controversy over the Olympic figure skating events.

A Russian couple, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, narrowly won the gold medal in the pairs competition despite a fall on the ice, defeating a pair of Canadian skaters. Olympic officials then awarded the Canadians a duplicate gold medal because of controversy over the judging.

After the Olympics, the International Skating Union suspended a French judge for failing to report what she first said was pressure from French officials, pressure that she later said came from Canadian officials.

American prosecutors accuse Tokhtakhounov, 53, of conniving with French skating officials to guarantee the award of skating honors to Russians in one competition, French in another.

Tokhtakhounov's lawyer said yesterday in Venice that his client insists the charges are a "farce." Tokhtakhounov was arrested in Venice by Italian police and is being held in the city's Santa Maria Maggiore prison.

"He's absolutely surprised," said his lawyer, Luca Saldarelli. "He doesn't know anything about the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. He's not even a fan of figure skating."

Yesterday, two top IOC officials left open the possibility of changing final scores in pairs and ice dancing from the Games.

"I am not ruling out anything, not even the annulment of the Olympic results," said Thomas Bach, vice president of the International Olympic Committee.

Too much to ignore

IOC President Jacques Rogge said he didn't want to punish athletes because of the "wrongdoing of some judges," but no "action or sanction" would be ruled out.

"The information that we have received is too much to be ignored," Rogge said in Manchester, England, at the Commonwealth Games.

Meanwhile, frustration in Russia is growing.

"I have the feeling of being cheated, and of injustice," said Julia Goertman, a 24-year-old Moscow lawyer, sitting with a group of friends on Pushkin Square, outside Moscow's largest McDonald's. She believes large, hidden forces are at work, conspiring against Russia.

"They are trying to convince the common people in the United States that the U.S. is still the strongest country in the world," she said. "The U.S. would do anything to weaken Russia, and they are trying to give the gold medal to another country to humiliate Russia."

Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, the Russian skaters, have threatened to sue U.S. television networks for re-broadcasting video of their Olympic performance in stories about Tokhtakhunov's arrest.

"My opinion is that it is high time for Canadians and all North Americans to calm down and to be happy with the fact that they have got one set of golden medals as a present," Sikhuralidze, one of the duo, told reporters at St. Petersburg's airport.

"Nevertheless, the slander campaign continues, our photographs have been demonstrated on television along with stories about the Russian mafia."

Unsavory reputation

American authorities have in the past suspected Tokhtakhunov of dealing illegally in arms and drugs, and he has been investigated for alleged money laundering. But he is well known among celebrity athletes and entertainers here.

All know him by his nickname "Taivanchik," or the Taiwanese - which refers to the Uzbek-born Tokhakhunov's Central Asian features.

Many Russians are quick to point out that Tokhtakhunov is an ethnic Uzbek, not an ethnic Russian. As a Central Asian, he fits the stereotype that most Russians prefer of a gangster. The news agency Tass described him yesterday as a "Russian criminal tycoon."

Bribery and "fixes" are hardly unknown here. Bribes are paid for gaining admission to a good college and for a passing grade on a driver's license exam. But fixing two Olympic events?

"I think that anything is possible," said Nadezhda Smirnova, a 33-year-old Muscovite. "Personally, I have been lately observing the fact that nothing can be done without corruption."

Smirnova remembering watched the Olympic pairs figure skating competition and seeing the Russians fall but still get the gold medal.

"I can't say that our figure skaters were better."

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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