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17 May, 2018  ▪  Ivan Verbytskiy

The Olympic cash flow

How Russian lobbyism works in sports

Kyiv was preparing to host the Kadet European Championship in freestyle, Greco-Roman and women’s wrestling on April 21–29. But it will not. The United World Wrestling (UWW) has decided that Ukraine cannot ensure proper security. However absurd, this decision is probably the reaction to the refusal of the Ukrainian team to go to the European Wrestling Championship for adults scheduled for May in Russia’s Kaspiysk. Russia has some powerful lobbying in the wrestling world. Suffice it to say that the UWW is chaired by Nenad Lalovic who is known for his pro-Russian sentiment, while most projects in this sport are funded by Russia.
But wrestling is not alone in this.

Another recent demarche hit Yuriy Anikeyev, the world champion in draughts. Last year, the International Draughts Federation disqualified him from the competitions held under its umbrella for playing in vyshyvanka, a Ukrainian embroidered shirt, for three years. Surprisingly, this is longer than disqualifications for the use of meldonium and other doping drugs. The president of IDF is Vladimir Langin, a Russian himself. “Maidans won’t work here,” IDF tournament director Aleksandr Nikiforov commented on the disqualification online. According to Anikeyev, Nikoforov once called him “dirty Nazi”.

The rejection of Ukraine’s right to host the wrestling championship is obviously biased. Only this February, Kyiv hosted a regular international wrestling tournament with athletes from 37 countries, including several Russians. Lalovic was personally present at the tournament and had a chance to see that Ukraine’s capital is safe. In May, the Palace of Sports in Kyiv was hosting the Ice Hockey World Junior Championship – Division IB. Kyiv hosted major international tournaments in artistic and rhythmic gymnastics in March. And it regularly hosts European Championship football games. 

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No incident of security breach in those events has been recorded. Lalovic surely knows this. Still, according to our sources, the final decision on the location of the wrestling championship was taken at the level of Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. He allegedly demanded personal guarantee from Ukraine’s president and prime minister, while only Sports Minister Ihor Zhdanov assured him that being and competing in Kyiv is safe.  

Mr. Bach is a controversial figure in the world of sports. He took over the IOC presidency from Jacuqes Rogge. Coming with a goal of removing corruption from the IOC, Bach is often referred to as a lobbyist of Russia’s interests in his fifth year of presidency.

“It was clear from the beginning that sting-puller Bach advocated by willing tools will bury one of the biggest doping scandals in history. Mission accomplished”, tweeted Hajo Seppelt, a German journalist and author of the film investigating the state-sponsored doping system in Russia, on the IOC’s decision to fully reinstate Russian Olympic Committee’s rights after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. 

Busy with the whitewashing of Russian sports, the IOC officials did not take into account the fact that two Russian athletes, curler Alexander Krushelnitsky and bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva, tested positive during the Olympics. “He is a crook”, said Bryan Fogel, the director of the Oscar-winning film Icarus, of Thomas Bach. “What he has shown to planet Earth and any athlete who believes in the Olympic ideal is not to trust it and not to trust those words. If you can corroborate and prove and substantiate a fraud on this caliber […] that spanned for decades, and then essentially give that country that committed that fraud a slap on the wrist, allow 160 of their athletes to complete in those Games – two of them found doping – and then immediately after the Games are over […] they lift the ban on that country? What a fraud. What a corrupt organization […] that man should be ashamed of himself.”

Indeed, the fact that the Russian team was allowed to compete puzzled many before the 23rd Winter Olympics even started. Its athletes had to compete under a neutral flag and over fifty were suspended. Yet, that kind of punishment seemed too soft for a country that had distorted the outcome of the Sochi Olympics by replacing testing samples.   

By constantly flirting with Russia, the world’s sports elite actually puts itself in opposition to the rest of the civilized world. Russia will soon host the football world championship. There has been no talk of boycotting it. Stephen Kinnock, a British Labor Party politician, has proposed moving the championship from Russia and hosting it in another country in 2019, but the initiative gained little support – also from the Arab world countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco or Tunisia, which could have thus responded to the military aggression in Syria.

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Gazprom stands among the biggest sponsors of international football. EUR 130mn alone was paid by the Russians for the first contract with UEFA signed in 2011. “As money can be laundered, so can reputations, and UEFA’s acceptance of Gazprom’s sponsorship is part of football’s ever-increasing willingness to do the laundering,” Timothy Kennett wrote in a piece for The Huffington Post in 2014. “We contend that Gazprom is involved in UEFA and FIFA sponsorships because they provide the company with access to key decision-makers in government and in energy companies across key territories in which football is very popular,” The South China Morning Post wrote in 2017.

The assumption of the Chinese outlet was recently echoed by Alexander Beliavsky, a Lviv-born chess grandmaster now playing for Slovenia. His statement referred to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). “Russian politics needs Ilyumzhinov at the helm of FIDE to have its person with a status of international representative,” Beliavsky said. “Who was the last person to see Saddam Husein? Ilyumzhinov. Who was the last person to see Muammar Gaddafi? Ilyumzhinov. Who came to Bashar Al-Assad when he was in a bad place? Actually, Assad was lucky because his situation changed. You see, Ilyumzhinov comes and speaks on behalf of the Russian government but the Russian government bears no responsibility for this.”

Now, Ilyumzhinov’s own future as the long-time FIDE President is uncertain. He is on the list of Russians sanctioned by the US. FIDE Vice-President Israel Gelfer announced recently that FIDE had received a letter from UBS, a Swiss bank, notifying of the closure of its accounts as of April 30. FIDE’s leaders are talking to the bank, but they have so far failed to change the situation as Ilyumzhinov is on the sanction list. Gelfer thus says that having Ilyumzhinov as FIDE President in the future will lead to financial and reputational risks for the organization.

After the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, UK MPs also talked about sanctioning two oligarchs with close ties to football in the country. These include Chelsea F.C. owner Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, a major shareholder at Arsenal and president of the International Fencing Federation. Another Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov has succumbed to the pressure and sold 49% of his shares at the Brooklyn Nets, an American professional basketball team, out of the 80% he owned.

With their unlimited money flows into sports of different scales, from draughts to the Champions League in football, the Russians do not necessarily need one of them to play for their interests. They can pay foreigners to do the job. Olympic boxing offers one example. A recent International Boxing Association (AIBA) in Moscow elected Uzbek “entrepreneur” Gafur Rakhimov as its president. He is otherwise referred to as a leader of Bratski Krug [Brothers’ Circle], a transnational criminal group involving criminals from the former Soviet Union countries. The US Department of the Treasury links Rakhimov to drug trafficking. He is banned from entering many civilized states. It is clear that Rakhimov is on the hook of those who nominated him for the post.

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Anders Basseberg, a 72-year old president of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) from Norway, has chaired the organization since its foundation in 1993. The Austrian Criminal Police has recently searched IBU headquarters in Salzburg under the anti-doping investigation. Basseberg has been suspended from his job for the time of the investigation and is suspected of getting a nearly US $240,000 bribe for concealing the doping tests of Russian biathlon athletes. Norway media reported earlier that Basseberg has hidden 65 cases of the Russians related to either positive doping tests or abnormal blood indicators (biological passports).

Russia’s unfair games are being held back, including in wrestling. In early April, Russian freestyle wrestlers failed to compete in the US as the embassy didn’t grant them visas. The athletes thus joined their leader Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, on the list of people banned from entering over a dozen countries because of his links with the criminal world.

These feats, however, are belittled by Gazprom’s expansion in football or Russia’s possible intervention in the world of professional boxing. The final fight of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) between Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk and Russia’s Murat Gassiev from Ossetia, the province of Georgia currently occupied by Russia, offers a glimpse at how it may go. Scheduled for May 11 in Saudi Arabia, it would bring all four top boxing belts to the winner. Then the Russian side claimed that it wanted the fight to take place in Moscow or Sochi, WBSS representatives became more obscure in their statements, while the fight was eventually postponed under the pretext of Usyk’s injured elbow. Usyk himself has said earlier that he does not care of the fighting location. Now, his promoter Oleksandr Krasiuk says that “the Russians can buy the fight, but they can’t make Usyk box there”. 

Translated by Anna Korbut

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