Commentary

Wanted man: 'Little Taiwanese' and his big role in an Olympics scandal

Updated: April 18, 2008, 6:37 PM ET
By John Barr and William Weinbaum | ESPN

Little TMax Avdeev for ESPNA 2001 Interpol report says Tokhtakhounov has been involved in drug dealing, illegal firearms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles.
MOSCOW -- The dachas in Peredelkino still provide precious escape for Russia's privileged few.

The country homes among the towering pines in the village southwest of Moscow sprang from an estate once owned by relatives of Peter the Great.

In Soviet times, Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize-winning author of "Doctor Zhivago," lived here along with dozens of writers and artists -- all by design so Russia's authoritarian leaders could keep a watchful eye and discourage dissent.

Not far from Pasternak's museum-home, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov sits in his dacha, waiting at a table in his lavishly decorated living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the room with sunlight. Bowls of nuts, plates of cookies, pomegranates and a pot of tea await his visitors as they arrive within his secure compound and seek refuge from the frigid air outside.

A preview of OTL's report on Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, airing Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN.

Tokhtakhounov is 59, short and slightly overweight. He is welcoming, even charming, as he motions for his visitors to come in. A housekeeper hovers nearby, moving in to pour the tea when the host provides the signal.

This is the image Tokhtakhounov projects for the duration of an interview with ESPN -- his first interview with a U.S. media outlet -- that spans two days, several hours and three separate meetings.

Organized crime investigators in several different countries paint a far different image of the man indicted for fixing two skating competitions at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

According to a 2001 Interpol report, Tokhtakhounov has been involved in drug dealing, illegal firearms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles. Italy's chief investigators of financial and organized crime, the Guardia di Finanza, investigated Tokhtakhounov in 2002 for money laundering (he was never charged). The FBI considers Tokhtakhounov a major player in the Russian mafia, a fugitive from American justice, a man who may be, in the words of a recently re-released Interpol alert, "dangerous and violent."

But Tokhtakhounov appears to be neither in this setting.

Known since his youth as "Taivanchik," or "Little Taiwanese," for his Asian features, he scoffs at his reputed connections to organized crime.

"I would like the American audience to know the truth about me," Tokhtakhounov says through a Russian interpreter. "That all that's being written about me is completely untrue."

Tokhtakhounov describes himself as a successful businessman. The FBI's Dennis Bolles considers Tokhtakhounov's characterization for a moment and gives a telling nod.

"Well, John Gotti said that. Paul Castellano said that. Members of the Gambino crime family said that," says Bolles, who is in charge of the FBI's Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force in New York City, the epicenter of Russian mafia activity in the United States.

He describes Tokhtakhounov as a middleman in the Izmailovskaya crime syndicate, a Moscow-based organized crime group with hundreds of members. "He's a deal maker," Bolles says of Tokhtakhounov. "He puts things together. He gets things done."

In early 2002, according to U.S. prosecutors, Tokhtakhounov orchestrated a deal so brazen and far-reaching, it catapulted him from the shadowy underworld of the Russian mafia to the center of a full-blown Olympic scandal.

Tarnished gold

Perhaps no event at the 2002 Olympics was as anticipated as the pairs figure skating competition.

"On the eve of the 2002 Olympics many people were looking forward to this pairs skating competition as being probably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in pairs skating on a single night," says Joy Goodwin, who covered the event as a producer for ABC Sports and later wrote about the competition in her book, "The Second Mark."

Heading into the long program, the finals of the competition, the Russian team of Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze was in first place with a narrow lead over the Canadian duo of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. A collision in the warm-ups between Sikharulidze and Sale only added to the drama.

But the skaters soon recovered and the Russians took the ice first with little, if any, margin for error.

"We were underneath backstage," says Sale, recalling the wait for the Russians to finish their program. "We could hear a reaction that wasn't so good. Like a big sigh. 'Oh no!'"

Early in the Russians' program, Sikharulidze made a minor mistake by stepping out on his landing of a double axel, a blemish on an otherwise brilliant performance, but enough of an opening to give the Canadians hope for a gold medal.

The Canadians, the clear crowd favorite, then skated in what appeared to most observers to be a near flawless program. Toward the end of the performance, they sensed they'd overtaken their chief rivals.

"We skated to some kind of a spiral where we were face to face or cheek to cheek," Pelletier recalls, "and [Jamie] goes: 'We did it! We did it! We did it!'"

But in the area nicknamed "the kiss and cry," where skaters wait anxiously for their marks from judges, the Canadians could only look on in disbelief as the judges instead awarded the gold medals to the Russian pair in a surprising 5-4 vote. Trying her best to put on a good face, Sale raised her hands and shoulders as if to shrug off defeat. Inside, she was dying.

"I almost felt like my heart was ripped right out of my chest," Sale says. "If I could give you an analogy, that's how bad it hurt me."

Goodwin couldn't quite believe what she was witnessing.

"I really felt that the Canadians were going to pull into first, and when they didn't, there was a tremendous letdown," Goodwin says. "There was booing, there was jeering from the crowd. There was definitely a sense that something had gone wrong."

The next day, one of the judges, Marie-Reine Le Gougne of France, confessed she'd been pressured by the head of her country's skating federation, Didier Gailhaguet, to vote for the Russians. Le Gougne soon recanted, but when news of her confession spread, the Olympics became engulfed in scandal.

Sale and Pelletier quickly emerged as the fresh-faced victims of corrupt judges and many wanted to hear their story. They appeared on "The Today Show," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Entertainment Tonight."

"I remember walking into the store we had in the athletes' village and I was on the cover of Time, People, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, [the] L.A. Times," Pelletier says. "I was looking at it and shaking my head. 'This is absolutely ridiculous.'"

After an international outcry, Olympic officials also awarded gold medals to Sale and Pelletier in a second ceremony. The four skaters put on their best faces in an otherwise awkward moment.

"It was really trying to paint over something that hadn't been addressed," Goodwin says. "There wasn't a full inquiry. There wasn't a legitimate investigation."

In April 2002, Le Gougne and Gailhaguet both received three-year suspensions from the International Skating Union for their roles in the scandal, but that is where the ISU's probe ended. Skating officials, eager to move on, pursued no other disciplinary action.

[+] EnlargeTokhtakhounov
Max Avdeev for ESPNTokhtakhounov told ESPN reporter John Barr that he does not consider himself a criminal.
Mafia connection?

What few in the figure skating world knew was that another investigation was already well under way.

More than 5,000 miles from Salt Lake City, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov was enjoying the good life in the heart of Tuscany, living in a villa in the seaside town of Forte dei Marmi.

What Tokhtakhounov didn't know was that starting in January 2002 the Guardia di Finanza had tapped his phone seeking evidence of money laundering. What investigators heard instead, according to Col. Claudio Di Gregorio, was Tokhtakhounov conspiring to "fix" the outcomes of two Olympic skating competitions. The evidence was soon turned over to the FBI.

"It's great evidence because it's on tape," Bolles says. "It's [Tokhtakhounov's] mouth, him talking. This isn't a witness coming forward. It's him talking about the Olympics himself."

In July 2002, Tokhtakhounov was arrested in his villa on conspiracy charges in a five-count U.S. indictment filed in the southern district of New York. Each count carries a maximum five-year sentence and $250,000 fine. Tokhtakhounov's plan, according to court documents, was to bribe skating officials to arrange a vote swap.

Le Gougne would vote for the Russian skaters in the pairs competition. In return, a Russian judge in the ice dancing competition would vote for a French duo, featuring Tokhtakhounov's friend, the Russian-born Marina Anissina.

"He arranged a classic quid pro quo," then-U.S. Attorney James Comey said at the time of Tokhtakhounov's arrest. "'You'll line up support for the Russian pair, we'll line up support for the French pair, and everybody'll go away with the gold. And perhaps there'll be a little gold for me, the Russian organized crime figure.'"

But why would the Russian mafia care about figure skating? What possible motive could a reputed Russian mobster, living in Italy, have to fix a skating competition in the United States?

Tokhtakhounov's motive, according to investigators, was money. He'd been kicked out of France for suspected mafia activity, investigators say, and wanted to return, so he orchestrated the conspiracy to curry favor with French authorities in the hopes of receiving a French visa.

According to the criminal complaint against Tokhtakhounov, he approached Gailhaguet in 2000 with an attractive offer: Tokhtakhounov would bankroll a professional hockey team in Paris and, in return, Gailhaguet would help him extend his French visa, which was about to expire.

According to the complaint, when a French government official told Gailhaguet that Tokhtakhounov's money was bad, Gailhaguet rejected Tokhtakhounov's proposal.

"Russian organized crime figures want to live in the West because that's where the money is," says Bolles, when asked about Tokhtakhounov's motives. "If you can get to the West there are more stable banks, more money to be made. But in order to do that, you have to be able to remain in that country legally."

The wiretap recordings by the Italian police have not been released, but the U.S. criminal complaint against Tokhtakhounov includes partial transcripts of the secretly taped phone calls.

According to those transcripts, a day after the Russian pair won their controversial gold medal, Tokhtakhounov spoke with a member of Russia's Olympic delegation in Salt Lake City. A source close to the investigation confirmed to ESPN the man on the phone with Tokhtakhounov was Chevalier Nusuyev, the former president of the Russian Youth Sports Federation.

"Our Sikharulidze fell, the Canadians were 10-times better, and in spite of that, the French with their vote gave us first place," Nusuyev tells Tokhtakhounov, according to the transcripts. "Everything is going the way you need it."

"This is a lie. They made it all up," Tokhtakhounov says defiantly when asked about this specific conversation. "There was nothing about bribing or anything serious like that in that conversation. All those conversations are fabricated."

Bolles calls Tokhtakhounov's explanation "weak" and says any suggestion that investigators fabricated evidence is "ridiculous."

While Tokhtakhounov denies ever speaking with Nusuyev, he does acknowledge having conversations with Anissina and her mother, Irina Chernayeva. He says he let the two stay at his apartment in Paris when he lived there in the late 1990s and that they remained friends.

According to transcripts, before Anissina's ice dancing event, Tokhtakhounov assured Chernayeva about the outcome of her daughter's competition, telling her, "even if she falls, we will make sure she is No. 1."

"He's pretty much telling the mother, there's no way she's going to lose, the fix is in even if she falls," Bolles says.

"I could never have said to her that even if your daughter falls, she'll be the champion," Tokhtakhounov says. "Who am I to be able to do such a thing?"

He says the entire conversation with Chernayeva was simply misunderstood, that he was merely expressing his confidence that Anissina would be an Olympic champion even if she fell during her program.

Tokhtakhounov spent 10 months in an Italian prison fighting extradition to the United States. He was never charged with money laundering, or anything else, by the Italian authorities.

"He tried to present himself as a businessman," recalls Col. Di Gregorio, who was present during Tokhtakhounov's arrest. When asked what kind of business, Tokhtakhounov simply replied "business," according to Di Gregorio.

The Italian courts set Tokhtakhounov free.

In July 2003, he flew to Russia, a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States. Before Tokhtakhounov's release, many in the figure skating community had high hopes the federal probe into the judging scandal would finally lead to a meaningful inquiry. All of that changed when Tokhtakhounov sought a safe haven in Moscow.

The case against him remains open. He remains a wanted man.

[+] EnlargeAlimzhan Tokhtakhounov and Pavel Bure
TASS News AgencyAlimzhan Tokhtakhounov, left, says he grew up around sports and knows many famous Russian sports figures, including former NHL star Pavel Bure.
Cold case

When asked what it's like to live life as a fugitive, Tokhtakhounov says it feels "unpleasant."

"I can't sleep," he says. "My health is suffering because of it."

If Tokhtakhounov is suffering, you'd hardly know it from his lifestyle. Far from a pariah, he remains an A-list member of the Moscow social scene and dines in the city's finest restaurants.

One night during ESPN's visit, Tokhtakhounov dined with his aide, former soccer star Azamat Abduraimov, at an expensive Italian restaurant. With a plate of lamb chops in front of him, Tokhtakhounov held court. Married and divorced three times, Tokhtakhounov lives the life of an aging bachelor. He is president of the Russian Soccer Foundation, a fundraising position that feeds his love of sports.

A former attacker with the powerhouse soccer club Pakhtakor in his native Uzbekistan, Tokhtakhounov remains a fixture at Moscow sporting events, where he rubbed elbows with the late President Boris Yeltsin and continues to be accepted among the elite. He says he was once a successful professional card player, but quit gambling 20 years ago. He's since been involved, he says, in casinos, construction and publishing sports magazines.

"I am not a poor man," Tokhtakhounov says. "I am a wealthy man. I work a lot. I work hard."

Tokhtakhounov counts some of Russia's top athletes among his close friends. Former NHL star Pavel Bure, one of many hockey players still friendly with Tokhtakhounov, declined to speak with ESPN about their relationship. Tokhtakhounov has also been linked to some of the world's top tennis players. A photo from 1999 shows Tokhtakhounov posing with Ukrainian tennis star Andrei Medvedev and Russian stars Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov around the time of the French Open.

"Our history goes back a long time, so, he's good friend of mine," Kafelnikov said of Tokhtakhounov.

Kafelnikov, who was once investigated by the men's tennis tour and later cleared of match fixing, laughed when asked about Tokhtakhounov's reputed mafia connections. "I'm not aware of any of that," Kafelnikov said.

When Tokhtakhounov was arrested in Italy, according Col. Di Gregorio of the Guardia di Finanza, he was driving a Mercedes registered to Medvedev. ESPN contacted Medvedev and his agent for comment, but they did not respond to the request.

"I'm a person who grew up in sports. I've been friends with athletes since I was a child and I don't intend to change my image," Tokhtakhounov says.

But Tokhtakhounov's position as an influential administrator with Russian soccer and his close personal ties to high-profile athletes are cause for concern, according to the FBI's Bolles.

"Everything is global now," Bolles says. "For a guy to be able to reach into the U.S., five, six thousand miles away and affect the Olympics is incredible, and, if he did it once, he may do it again."

After Tokhtakhounov's final meeting with ESPN, he bundles up in a heavy parka and starts walking down the circular driveway to his chauffeured vehicle.

"Americano!" he jokes about his Chevy SUV before his bodyguard opens the door.

As his U.S. import pulls away down an icy and narrow road, it's a reminder that this may be the closest to America the fugitive ever gets.

Reporter John Barr and producer William Weinbaum work in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Igor Malakhov, a journalist in Moscow, contributed to this story.

John Barr | email

Reporter ESPN Enterprise Unit