Corruption puts Russia's hockey party on ice

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY: Political upheaval in the former USSR has a sporting cost, says Owen Matthews
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The Independent Online
In the turbulent world of post-Soviet Russian sport, it seems what matters most is not whether you win or lose, but how much dirtier than your opponent you can play the game. What was once a disciplined, State-run bureaucracy has become big business for those sports lucky enough to attract Western money in the form of multi-million dollar transfer fees and sponsorship deals. But sports clubs are finding the cost of doing business in Russia is counted not in dollars and cents but in murder, kidnapping, extortion and corruption.

Ice hockey led the headlong plunge into capitalism in the early Nineties as its top players were snapped up by wealthy North American clubs. The Soviets had been established as the Winter Olympic giants in ice hockey since they won their first medal - gold - in the sport in 1956, and they collected six more golds, a silver and a bronze in the next eight Games. In 1992, the Unified Team kept up the sporting tradition in claiming gold but two years later at Lillehammer the signs of a disintegrated power in ice hockey were obvious as the now separated "Unified" countries failed to feature in the medals.

Ice hockey is a showcase of how money has turned Russian sport into a battlefield. Last Friday Vladimir Bogach, the business manager of the Central Army Sports Club team, was gunned down by three hitmen while playing tennis at the club's courts. The murder was the latest round of a series of high-profile corruption scandals which have centred around the club, which was once one of the Soviet Union's most successful sports organisations by virtue of its ability to take its pick of young sportsmen conscripted into the army for a compulsory two years. Last year, a public row between two rival club presidents, Vladimir Petrov and Valentin Sych, revealed millions of dollars of the club's money had disappeared into Swiss bank accounts instead of being invested in bringing on young talent.

This year, CSKA sacked Vladimir Tikhonov, the coach who had led the army club to 12 consecutive national championships and the Russian national team to four Olympic golds and eight world titles. Tikhonov, a full army Colonel, was eclipsed by the mass movement of players to the West and by the withering of the once all-powerful and highly politicised sport bureaucracy in which he was a big player. Tikhonov, who acknowledged millions of dollars in transfer fees received by CSKA had gone missing because of "mafia infiltration" of the club, was sacked by order of the then Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, who has himself been accused of corruption and in turn was ousted, along with other Kremlin hardliners, in early July.

Not even lucrative playing contracts in North America have saved Russian players from the long arm of Russian organised crime. At least three Russian NHL players have been targets of extortion attempts from Russian gangs, a US Senate hearing committee was told in May. Alexandr Mogilny of the Vancouver Canuks was threatened by Sergei Fomichev, a former associate who helped Mogilny to defect in 1989, who said he would injure the 26- year-old star and end his career. Fomichev was arrested in the US and is in jail on second-degree corruption charges.

The US Senate heard evidence from a Russian mafia witness that another top player, Alexei Zhitnik of the Buffalo Sabres, had also been threatened when he played in Los Angeles but, unlike Mogilny, did not go to the police. "Instead, he went to a more powerful criminal group to take care of the problem for him," said the witness, who is at present serving time in US prison. "Which I understand they did."

There is strong evidence that corruption and embezzlement are jeopardising the future of Russian hoc- key. When communism fell, the system was stocked with two generations of players. Now, after an exodus of stars, the backlog is gone, and the flow is down to the incoming juniors, of whom only a handful a year will play for the American National Hockey League. No one seems to know where the estimated $12m in transfer money for the first flood of players has vanished; it has certainly not gone into supporting programmes for young players.

Only nationally, when the dozen top Russian NHL players come temporarily back into the fold, is the old magic revived. The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, will see top professionals playing in the Olympics for the first time, following basketball's Dream Team formula. But today's Russian players are all products of the Soviet training system, nurtured and sponsored from a young age by the state. In five years many of them will be retired, and despite the millions of dollars poured into Russian hockey over the last six years, there may simply not be a new generation of players to continue Russia's once-proud tradition.

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