As we come to the 2018 Winter Olympics, an alleged Russian organized crime boss retains a long-standing world record as the sole person ever indicted for fixing a gold medal.
Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov remains a fugitive as the “Vor” or crime boss behind Skategate, the fixing of pairs figure skating and perhaps also the pairs ice dancing at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was indicted by none other than James Comey, who was then the Manhattan U.S. attorney.
“He arranged for a classic quid pro quo. ‘You line up support for the Russian pair and we’ll line up support for the French pair, and everybody will go away with the gold, and perhaps there’ll be a little bit of gold for me,’” Comey said when announcing the charges.
As if that were not enough, Tokhtakhounov went on also to be indicted in 2013 for running a criminal organization involved in money laundering and arms trafficking, as well as a multimillion-dollar gambling operation based in Trump Tower, three floors directly below the penthouse of the man who is now our president.
Tokhtakhounov—also known as “Alik” and “Tiwanchik”— is now doubly indicted in the United States, but safely ensconced in his native Russia. He likely remains disappointed in having still failed to achieve what the feds say was his ultimate goal in Skategate: securing a renewed visa that would allow him to resume living in France.
According to press accounts, Tokhtakhounov moved from Russia to France in the late 1980s. He reportedly became a kind of expat Vor, described in court papers as being the go-to Russian mafia boss in Paris, engaged in, “among other things, drug distribution, illegal firearms sales, and trafficking in stolen vehicles.” He settled into a beautiful apartment in the 16th arrondissement, reportedly purchased on his behalf by a Russian-Israeli-French émigré named Arcadi Gaydamak, who figured in a scandal of his own known as Angolagate, which eventually embroiled embroiled Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, son of the French president.
In court documents, Gaydamak is said to have to have facilitated the sale of $790 million in weapons during the Angola civil war, from 1993 to 1998. Tokhtakhounov’s other pals are said to include Michael Cherney, who figured in the bloody “aluminum wars” in the 1990s for control of the Russian metals business.
When Tokhtakhounov’s visa expired, French authorities declined to renew. He moved to Italy, where law enforcement authorities wiretapped his phone as part of Operation Spider Web, an investigation into the laundering of $9 billion in ill-gotten gains siphoned out of Russia.
In early 2002, Italian authorities informed the FBI that they had intercepted several phone conversations that offered some insight into an uproar over the gold medal for pairs figure skating at that year’s Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The Canadian pair, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, had executed a routine that left the crowd calling for perfect scores.
Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada compete in the Pairs Free Program Figure Skating at the Salt Lake Ice Center during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Six! Six!” Six!”
The performance of the Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, was generally considered inferior, but the judges had voted 5-4 to give them the gold.
The instant controversy prompted the French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, to break down and confess that she had voted for the Russians at the insistent urging of the president of the French Skating Federation (FSF).
The French judge subsequently recanted, but her initial admission gained considerable credence when the FBI translated the Italian wiretap recordings.
“Our Sikharulidze fell, the Canadians were 10 times better, and in spite of that, the French with their vote gave us first place,” Tokhtakhounov was recorded telling a Russian skating official shortly after the pairs skating completion.
“With one vote we won,” the Russian skating official said.
Figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya (bottom) and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform their free skating routine at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Feb. 11, 2002.
The transcripts show that Tokhtakhounov had gotten the phone number of the Russian official by calling a crony shortly before the Olympics. Tokhtakhounov told the crony that he had been contacted by the mother of Marina Anissina, a Russian-born ice dancer who was competing with the French.
“Regarding the Olympics?” the crony asks in the transcript.
“Yes, yes,” Tokhtakhounov says.
“We will help her,” the crony says.
“That’s a given,” Tokhtakhounov says,
The crony provided Tokhtakhounov with the number and assured him that the Russian official would be helpful.
“[The official] is close to us, he is a good guy,” the crony says. “He will do it… Because there is a lot for him there.”
In the ensuing conversation shortly after the pairs figure skating and shortly before the ice dancing, the Russian official sounds more than happy to do Tokhtakhounov’s bidding.
“Everything is going the way you need it,” he tells Tokhtakhounov. “Even if she stumbles… but it is better if she does not stumble.”
The official says of the upcoming ice dancing, “The French can only win by the score of five to four.”
Tokhtakhounov told the Russian skating official that he would call Anissina’s family and let them know. The official told Tokhtakhounov that he would call Anissina and tell her, “I am doing this for Alik [Tokhtakhounov], although I want you to help him with something.”
Tokhtakhounov informed the Russian official that Anissina had already approached the president of the FSF about helping the mob boss renew his French visa.
“She would do anything, but could not,” Tokhtakhounov says in the transcript. “That president, he is a homo, promised, but did nothing.”
“I told you, the problem is with him,” the Russian skating official says.
“[Anissina] strong-armed him, she is one of ours,” Tokhtakhounov says.
“She is one of ours, and she will be an Olympic champion,” the Russian official says.
“Thank you,” Tokhtakhounov says. ”She will be grateful to you for the rest of her life.”
The Russian official notes that the ice dancer will be performing in five days.
“I am telling you that not everything is good with the judging for her,” the Russian official says.
“But you will help, right?” Tokhtakhounov says.
“[Anissina] strong-armed him, she is one of ours.”
— Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov
“Of course, we will help because you told us to do it, and because the French helped us here,” the Russian official says.
The Russian official tells Tokhtakhounov again how helpful the French were.
“[The Canadians] performed cleanly and beautifully,” the Russian official says. “Their scores are 6.0 and they got 5.8 and 5.9.”
The Russian official adds, “With one vote we won. That one vote was French, because the French have nothing except for the ice dancing.”
He meant that ice dancing pair was the only chance the French had for gold. He noted that in making the Russian-born Anissina a champion they were also helping one of their own.
“She is a Russian girl, and we will feel good about it,” the official says.
“Of course,” Tokhtakhounov says.
Tokhtakhounov was then recorded telephoning Anissina’s mother.
A woman identified as the mother says, “[The Russian official] called me from America, he told me we are going to make [Anissina] an Olympic champion… Yesterday, the French, the French helped the pair figure skating, gave the last vote. [The Russian official] said, ‘For this we will make [Anissina], even if she falls, we will make sure she is number one.’”
Tokhtakhounov tells the mother, “[The Russian official] said he will help, he has two or three judges… So, make [Anissina] happy, tell her we will help her, and do it all.
By then, the uproar over the pairs figure skating gold medal was such that the Russian official may not have felt comfortable enough for a straight fix. The Russian judge did not vote for the French, but the result was just what the Russian official promised Tokhtakhounov.
“The French team won the ice dancing completion by a five to four vote, as [the Russian official] stated,” the FBI criminal complaint notes.
A week later, Tokhtakhounov was recorded speaking directly on the phone with Anissina. She told him that she had not called him earlier from America because the president of the French Skating Federation had forbidden her.
“The FBI were interviewing [the president of the FSF] because information came in that [Tokhtakhounov] was involved with the results,” a woman identified as Anissina says.
“That is nonsense,” Tokhtakhounov says. “He is frightened. There is nothing.”
“[The FSF president] came, told me, and they really did check him, the FBI,” Anissina says.
“It was him they were checking,” Tokhtakhounov says. “What does that have to do with me? He knows my name very well. He tried to help me, and later made up stuff to scare you, so you would not connect me to him even more. He was protecting himself.”
Anissina tells Tokhtakhounov that the Russian skating official had come up to her “yelling at me, ‘Call Alik, you are such a bitch, not calling.’”
“No, no, no, the reason [the Russian official] said this to you… a week before your performance… I contacted your mother… [the Russian official] said, ‘Alik, everything is OK there even if,” Tokhtakhounov says in a jumble.
He then catches himself, “I just don’t want to say now.”
The FBI complaint notes that Tokhtakhounov indicates on several occasions in this conversation that he is concerned Anissina’s phone is tapped.
“Everything is good, even if everything turns out badly, it will still be good.”
The complaint suggests Tokhtakhounov “is reluctant to discuss the full scope of the scheme with the female ice dander during this telephone call.”
In the transcript of the call, Tokhtakhounov does quote the Russian skating official telling him, “Everything is good, even if everything turns out badly, it will still be good.”
At one point, maybe out of pride or worry about a wiretap, Anissina tells Tokhtakhounov that she believes she would have won without his help. Tokhtakhounov quotes the Russian skating official as having said before the competition, “Everything will be OK, [Anissina] should not be concerned, let her perform, even if she falls, everything will be OK.”
Near the end of the call, Tokhtakhounov sought details of what the French skating official had said.
“He said there are inquiries, he said he was asked about this association with you, he said, ‘I know him, there was something regarding hockey,”’ Anissina reports.
“He is lying,” Tokhtakhounov says. “We have nothing in common.”
The criminal complaint notes that the FBI had indeed made inquiries. The president of the FSF told the agents he had been contacted by Tokhtakhounov approximately two years before.
“[Tokhtakhounov] contacted the FSF president and stated that the wanted to organize a professional hockey team in Paris, France, which would be operated by the FSF,” the complaint reports. “Tokhtakhounov explained that he would give large amounts of money to sponsor athletic teams. After several conversations with the president of the FSF, Tokhtakhounov started that in connection with sponsoring the hockey team, he needed a favor. Specifically, Tokhtakhounov stated that his French visa was expiring and that Tokhtakhounov needed the president of the FSF to assist him in obtaining an extension. The president of the FSF told Tokhtakhounov he would see what could be done.”
The FSF president inquired with the appropriate French government official.
“After several months, this official told the president of the FSF that Tokhtakhounov’s money is bad and that the FSF should not get involved with Tokhtakhounov,” the complaint reports. “The president of the FSF informed the FBI that he told Tokhtakhounov that the FSF was not interested in Tokhtakhounov’s proposal and that he had not seen or spoken to Tokhtakhounov again.”
The Olympic Committee sought to rectify the situation by awarding gold medals to the Canadian figure skating pair as well as the Russian pair. Comey’s remedy was to indict Tokhtakhounov. Italian police arrested the accused Olympic fixer and lodged him in the Santa Maria Maggiore prison in Venice.
After a hearing in which the wiretap recordings were played, a judge ordered Tokhtakhounov’s extradition.
But he appealed, and a higher court found in his favor. He was freed in 2003 after a year in the Venice prison and returned to Russia. He there purchased a small Moscow newspaper and made it energetically pro-Putin. He is also said to have started running from afar a $100 million gambling and money laundering operation headquartered on the 63rd floor of Trump Tower.
The New York office was run by Vadim “Dima” Trincher, the other senior member of what is termed the “Tiwanchik-Trincher Organization” in a 2013 federal racketeering indictment. Trincher was arrested, pleaded guilty, and received a five-year prison term.
Now under two indictments, Tokhtakhounov remained safely in Moscow. He had only to think of his associate Viktor Bout to be reminded of the dangers of venturing outside Russia when wanted by the United States.
Bout had been arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States on terrorism and arms trafficking charges. He is said to have played a role in Angolagate and also sold weapons to everybody from al Qaeda to the Taliban to Iran to guerrillas in Colombia. He was tried in Manhattan federal court, the same venue where Tokhtakhounov would have been tried had the higher Italian court not overturned his extradition. Bout was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to a 25-year term.
Bout’s fate prompted Tokhtakhounov to send the Russian daily Izvestia an op-ed letter, perhaps the first such missive ever penned by an alleged mob boss.
“The problem with these kinds of stories is that the United States regularly and harshly blamed our citizens for some incredible crimes, after which it takes a long time to prove one's innocence and clean oneself of negative impact,” Tokhtakhounov wrote.
“This means that American gain trumps in the political game against Russia, and we have no way to fight it, no recourse.”
He did not likely intend a pun. The world was still six years away from imagining that Donald Trump might ever become president.
“Americans might intervene everywhere, and we, as it turns out, cannot adequately respond. Why can the U.S. authorities arrest a Russian citizen in a third country and extradite him and try him without our intervention? And we do not intervene, because Russia is still in some ways a dependent country. It is difficult for us to utilize strong initiatives to protect our citizens.
Tokhtakhounov’s op-ed went on, “In this case, time is a doctor. Thanks to our current authorities, the country is growing mightier.”
“Maybe in five to10 years, in some cases, we'll be able to unzip the fly [on our pants], so to say, and show them.”
— Alimzhan Toktakhounov
The “current authorities” meaning Vladimir Putin.
“And maybe in five to10 years, in some cases, we'll be able to unzip the fly [on our pants], so to say, and show them.”
Tokhtakhounov could not likely have foreseen just how right he would prove to be. Putin would essentially do exactly that thanks to the malleable narcissist in the penthouse three floors up from where the Vor set up shop in Trump Tower.
In the meantime, Trincher was released to house arrest, which meant he was confined in splendor as federal prisoner 68454-054 directly below the Trump residence all during the presidential campaign and during the first seven months of the new administration. Federal probation officers faced the novel prospect of having to pass through the Secret Service to run spot checks on a felon.
As for Bout, he has appealed to Trump to allow him to be retried before an international tribunal.
And Tokhtakhounov is no doubt greatly enjoying the spectacle of America upending itself like some clown on ice. He has even been able to see Comey get fired and smeared.
At least the rest of us can watch those beautiful Olympic skaters complete with perfect grace so unlike what we are witnessing in our politics.
In these Winter Olympics, it is even legit, unless somebody is out there trying to match Tokhtakhounov’s world record for fixing a gold medal.