Russian mafia’s attraction to the world of sports is nothing new. There are many examples how the Russian organized crime has successfully targeted top sports players, has socialized with them, and in some cases established businesses together. Most of these cases have involved hockey players, one of which is world famous Pavel Bure (Anna Kournikova’s ex-boyfriend/fiancé). However, after months of match-fixing allegations in tennis, AFP reports that US tennis legend John McEnroe expressed his concern that organized crime, such as the Russian mafia, could be infiltrating tennis. The outspoken former world number one believes that threats to tennis players or their families could be forcing them into throwing matches.
“The thing that worries me is that mafia types, like the Russian mafia, could be involved. That’s potentially pretty dark and scary. I think that’s the side that people aren’t really looking at with these match-fixing stories. Someone may have threatened the players, and they are put in a situation. I’m guessing that could happen. That would make more sense to me than top players throwing a match for money.
“Throwing a match for money would be stupid, as you would be risking losing what you’ve worked for your whole life. It seems crazy that players would take that risk for money. It would make more sense that they’ve been threatened in some way and that’s why they’re doing it.”
Here are some examples of how the Russian mafia “plays” sports:
–Declan Hill in his investigative article The Russian Mafia and Hockey brings numerous examples from the world of hockey–extortion and mob killings–and explains what the Russian mafia wants: a) money, b) to control games, c) to be seen with stars, d) part of sport proceeds.
–How many of you did know that the Russian Davis Cup Team captain Shamil Tarpischev himself has survived a mob assassination on the Kremlin tennis grounds? [Update: I did more research on the alleged assassination attempt and could not find other sources to confirm it except the one mentioned above. So, I am not sure if it has happened.] He is Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s former tennis coach and Sport Minister. In the past, Tarpischev also had some problems obtaining American visa for Olympic competitions in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. He almost missed a crucial Fed Cup semifinal in Vermont. The U.S. authorities have been accusing him of having links to Russian mafia, a charge he flatly denies.
–Russian figure skating world champion Maria Butyrskaya‘s car was blown up by the Russian mafia in December 1999, and speculation followed that the ensuing emotional distress caused her to lose the 1999 Russian Championships.
–Another well publicized case was Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov’s arrest in connection with fixing figure-skating competitions at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Tokhtakhounov, who federal prosecutors said is in organized crime, was accused of conspiracy to fix the results of the Olympic skating competition to ensure gold medals for the top Russian pairs skaters and for the top French ice dancers, one of whom is Russian. The Russian side denies any wrongdoing. Alimzhan was arrested in Italy by the request of the United States, but the Italian court refused the extradition bid and freed Tokhtakhounov.
In 2002 The New York Times had an article about the scandal where it also mentioned Tokhtakounov’s association with tennis players:
He was described as a gadfly and patron who knew some of the most famous athletes from the former Soviet republics.
He has associated with Pavel Bure, a Russian who now plays for the Rangers in the National Hockey League, and with Ruslan Nigmatullin, the goalkeeper of the Russian soccer team. The official Web site of the Ukrainian tennis player Andrei Medvedev displays a photograph of Tokhtakhounov with Medvedev and the Russian tennis players Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
”He is a good friend of mine, but I’d rather talk about tennis,” Kafelnikov told The Associated Press today in Toronto, where he is competing in the Canada Tennis Masters tournament.
Safin, also in Toronto, said he knew Tokhtakhounov, but added, ”I don’t think it would be nice to talk about this today.”
Interesting, isn’t it?
(Photo John McEnroe: AFP)