Deaflympics: The rubbish tycoon and the games that were dumped

Sporting event cancelled after an alleged €11m fraud

Teething problems are not uncommon ahead of major global sporting events, but after some 11th-hour bolt-tightening at stadiums or spring cleaning at athletes' villages, games tend to go ahead as planned.

But matters were not so straightforward for the world's elite hearing-impaired athletes who descended on Slovakia's High Tatras in February for the 17th Winter Deaflympics. With skis propped on shoulders and skates in hand, some athletes arrived at hotels that had no knowledge of their bookings, found slopes closed for competition and ice rinks resembling building sites.

According to police in Slovakia, the sole organiser of the Games – the former owner of a waste management company named Jaromir Ruda – had embezzled approximately €11m intended to prepare the country to host the Deaflympics. Even more remarkably, he had somehow managed to get away with it, having provided "multiple written assurances" to the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) that nothing was amiss and apparently hoodwinking credulous inspection teams into thinking construction plans were proceeding as projected.

But only a week before the proposed opening on 18 February, and with delegations from as far away as Canada, the United States and Japan already in Europe, the Games were officially cancelled with deaf sports officials ruing "broken promises".

Mr Ruda appeared at a hastily-arranged press conference to issue profuse apologies for the cancellation of the games, but was later apprehended on the Slovak-Hungarian border attempting to flee the country. He will appear in court today facing charges of fraud that could land him in prison for 10 to 15 years. He denies the charges.

"Deaf sport is considered almost an irrelevance by most governments," said Mark Cooper, chief executive of the ICSD, who previously advised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a crisis management position ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics. "[The Deaflympics] was all done as a private venture, which unfortunately left the deaf sports community in a very vulnerable position where they could be preyed upon by fantastic conmen."

Athletes and their families are wondering how anyone could pull off such an swindle and leave them with nothing to show for years of training and dreams of Deaflympic triumph.

"It was just a crushing blow," said Ken Yopp, of Bend, Oregon, whose son Nicolas was a medal prospect on the United States ski team. The Yopps found out three days before Nicolas was due to fly to Slovakia that the Games were off and that an estimated $8,000 personal investment had been wasted. "This is a horrible tragedy for so many athletes and people involved," Mr Yopp said.

International deaf sports committees, which often operate on tiny budgets and with small staffs, estimate their investment into the 2011 Deaflympics at €1.7m, much of it sent to Mr Ruda after he claimed to have secured preferential rates for hotel rooms. When athletes arrived in Slovakia, however, no accommodation had been booked, no referees had been paid to officiate matches, and skiing venues had not been rented.

Mr Ruda allegedly prised even more from private businesses over the five years since Slovakia won the nomination to host the Deaflympics, which is the premier winter sporting event for the hearing impaired. Deaf athletes do not compete at the Paralympics, but the summer Deaflympics have been contested since 1924 and their winter equivalent since 1949.

Mr Ruda allegedly agreed construction deals with commercial investors and promised impoverished Slovak municipalities new stadiums for a minimal expenditure. However, some expressed doubts over his abilities as an organiser as early as 2008 and in May 2010, the ICSD acted on their own suspicions and announced that a new venue would be sought for the 2011 Games.

But after visiting Slovakia in November last year, the then head of the ICSD, Tiffany Granfors, issued a statement insisting the Games would proceed as scheduled. "My recent trip to Slovakia showed me that the organising committee has made great strides in ensuring that all sports venues, lodging facilities, and transportation services will be available," said Ms Granfors' statement of 3 December.

Mr Yopp said that he had heard from sources that the inspectors "were picked up at the airport and brought to the swankiest hotel around, wined and dined, showed photos and showed documents and then whisked back to the airport." He added: "That seems to me like a big blunder and it's why I hold the international committee responsible. They should have visited these sites."

Mr Cooper admitted that his predecessor's confidence may have been misplaced. However he would not be drawn on allegations that the inspection committee did not visit the proposed venues for competition despite their trip to the host country.

In Levoca, a central Slovakian town in the foothills of the High Tatras, redevelopment work on the town's ice rink lasted only two months last spring. According to Frantisek Brincko, whose house overlooks the site, workers managed to demolish a functioning open-air rink in preparation for the construction of a multi-purpose indoor venue, but have not been seen since June.

Last week – two months after the Deaflympics were due to start – the area was still little more than a messy, vacant scrap of wasteland, with a couple of blue cabins, a line of girders dug into mud and the flimsiest of stadium skeletons. Outside, a redundant sign declared the proposed completion date for works as December 2010.

"The dog died here," Mr Brincko said, using a Slovak idiom with a fairly obvious meaning. "It has been clear since last year that it would never be finished."

Mr Cooper said that the Levoca ice hockey stadium was never intended to be used for the Deaflympics, with the hockey events having been moved to nearby Poprad. But local press coverage names Levoca as one of two intended hockey stadiums and Mr Brincko was among many Slovaks hoping to watch the competition. "I hope I'll live long enough to see it," he said.

There is still no sign of the alleged €11m of missing funds, nor even a firm indication where most of it is supposed to have come from. But while deaf athletes now hope an alternative venue can be found at short notice – possibly in Russia next winter – attention returns to Mr Ruda in the dock. "We'll have to see how the criminal justice process plays out in Slovakia," said Mr Cooper. "I don't have great hopes."

The Corruption Game

Commonwealth Games, 2010 Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi is one of several high-ranking officials implicated in a government investigation into corruption at India's trouble-plagued Games in Delhi last October. He is accused of being involved in the alleged misappropriation of up to $1.7bn in funding.

World Cup bid, 2010Two former members of Fifa's executive committee – Nigeria's Amos Adamu and Tahiti's Reynald Temarii – were suspended last November after a British newspaper sting alleged that they had offered to sell their votes in the contest to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Previously a favourite to win, the UK bid received just two votes. Winter Olympics bid, 2002In 1999, an inquiry revealed that two top officials who led Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 games gave gifts and payments amounting to more than $1m to members of the International Olympic Committee who were involved in choosing the venue. Utah managed to claw back credibility to make a success of the event.

Enjoli Liston

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