The Olympic cash flow:

How Rus­sian lob­by­ism works in sports

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ivan Ver­byt­skyi

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.

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.

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.

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 an­tidop­ing 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”.

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

The value of friend­ship. IOC pres­i­dent Thomas Bach is proac­tively help­ing Rus­sia white­wash its im­age af­ter scan­dals in the sports world

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