An alleged Russian mobster was arrested yesterday and accused of masterminding an astonishing vote-rigging scandal that rocked the ice-skating events at this year's Winter Olympics.
Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov was accused of using his mafia connections to organise a quid pro quo arrangement whereby, in exchange for the French judge's vote for the Russian pairs figure skating team, the Russian judges ensured the French won the ice-dancing competition at the Salt Lake City games. Both the French and Russian teams won these respective events.
Mr Tokhtakhounov is alleged to have organised the rigging partly as a favour to the mother of the female member of the French ice-dancing team, Marina Anissina, who was born in the former Soviet Union.
In turn, Mr Tokhtakhounov expected Ms Anissina to use her influence with the French Skating Federation (FSF) to encourage it to support his claim for an extension to his French visa. Transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Mr Tokhtakhounov and Ms Anissina allegedly suggest she was expected to use her feminine charms to influence the FSG president.
Mr Tokhtakhounov, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but who has Russian citizenship, was arrested yesterday morning at his home in Forte dei Marmi, northern Italy, in a joint operation involving the FBI and the Italian financial police.
The US is seeking his extradition to face charges of bribery and fraud. An Interpol report also accuses Mr Tokhtakhounov, aged either 53 or 63,of drug and illegal firearm trafficking as well as the rigging of Moscow beauty pageants.
James Comey, a US federal attorney, who filed the charges, said: "The long arm of organised crime reached across the globe. This investigation further establishes the sweeping negative influence of organised crime in the international community."
The Salt Lake City games were rocked by the most serious judging scandal in Olympic history. There was outrage after the Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the figure-skating event, beating Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by the slimmest of margins with the judges voting 5-4 in favour of the Russians.
The day after the result which led to storms of controversy because of an obvious technical error by Sikharulidze the French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said she had been pressured to place the Russians first by the FSF president, Didier Gailhaguet. In an unprecedented move, the authorities decided to award a duplicate gold medal to the Canadian pair.
There was similar controversy after the ice-dancing event was won by the French team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat with Russia's Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh taking silver. A Lithuanian pair, who finished fifth, filed a protest questioning the judging.
According to an affidavit filed yesterday by the FBI, Mr Tokhtakhounov arranged for both results, using his influence with a senior member of the Russian Skating Federation who allegedly has links with Russian organised crime.
It is also claimed that Mr Tokhtakhounov had previous dealings with Mr Gailhaguet, when he offered to bankroll a French ice-hockey team.
In one secretly recorded conversation, Mr Tokhtakhounov allegedly talked with another member of the Russian mafia, who was identified only as CC-1, and asked for the telephone number of a senior member of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, to whom they had links.
"I got a call from [Ms Anissina's] mother," said Mr Tokhtakhounov. His associate responded: "Regarding the Olympics." Mr Tokhtakhounov said "yes" and his associate said they should help her. The associate CC-1 then said the senior Russian official would help, adding: "He is close to us. He is a good guy. He will do it because there is a lot in it for him."
During a later conversation Mr Tokhtakhounov is heard telling CC-1 that Ms Anissina had tried to obtain the help of Mr Gailhaguet to try to get an extension for his French visa, which had expired and was forcing him to live in Italy. "She would do anything but could not," he said. "That president ... promised, but did nothing." His associate replied: "[Ms Anissina] is one of ours and she will be an Olympic champion."
The allegations stunned the skating world, though there was no immediate comment from the International Olympic Committee or the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games.
A spokesman for the US attorney's office said the investigation was continuing. He stressed that no charges had been brought against Ms Anissina, Mr Gailhaguet or any of the French or Russian judges.
Ms Anissina and Mr Gailhaguet are not referred to by name in the FBI affidavit but the spokesman confirmed to The Independent that they are the people referred to by the titles "female ice dancer" and "FSF president".
What ramifications the claims will have is unclear. In April, the International Skating Union voted to suspend Ms Le Gougne and Mr Gailhaguet for three years. They were also barred from participation in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.
Last week Ms Le Gougne said she was dropping an appeal against the ban, while in July Mr Gailhaguet also abandoned plans to fight the ban he had received for his alleged part in the figure-skating result.