MOSCOW — Russian sports officials and figure skaters erupted in indignation Thursday, accusing U.S. authorities of anti-Russian zealotry in charging a reputed Russian mobster with trying to rig votes at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
"Russia and Russian sports have again been smeared," complained Gennady Shvets, spokesman for the Russian Olympic Committee.
In essence, Russian businessman and alleged crime boss Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov was accused of conspiring to arrange a vote swap between Russian and French judges: In return for the French judge's voting for the Russian pair in the figure skating contest, the Russian judge was supposed to vote for the French pair in the ice dancing contest.
The allegations widened the scandal over judging during the Olympics beyond the pairs figure skating, in which duplicate gold medals were eventually awarded to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze and Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. It also cast doubt on the outcome of the ice dancing competition.
Tokhtakhunov was arrested Wednesday in Venice on conspiracy charges. The United States is seeking his extradition, which Italian officials said is likely to be granted quickly.
"We carried out some wiretapping revealing that Tokhtakhunov has directly, personally and effectively taken trouble in order to allow some athletes to reach some specific results in the Olympic competitions," said Col. Claudio di Gregorio, spokesman for the regional police task force in Venice. "In short, according to our wiretapping, medals results were already allotted at least six days before the competitions actually took place."
The new accusations besmirch Russia's reputation not only because Tokhtakhunov is a Russian national, but also because they suggest he may have tried to manipulate the Russian judge in the ice dancing competition.
The ice dancing winners were the French duo, Gwendal Peizerat and Russian-born Marina Anisina, whose gold medal may now depend on the outcome of the case. The Russian pair, Irina Lobachyova and Ilya Averbukh, took the silver.
In a statement released by the French pair's agent, Liz DeSevo, Peizerat said: "Marina and I skated our hearts out at the Olympic Games and believe we were justly awarded with the gold medal.... We were shocked by the latest news alleging the possibility of a fix. If it turns out that someone attempted to influence the results of our competition, that is both disturbing and sad. But these allegations should not diminish the goals achieved by all the Olympians in Salt Lake City."
Averbukh, reached by telephone in Delaware where he is training with Lobachyova, said they are not planning to contest the medals standings.
"As long as there is no irrefutable evidence that the vote was rigged, we will not behave like the Canadian pair," Averbukh said. "We will not call press conferences, give interviews and keep droning on that we must get a medal too. This would not be the right thing to do. It would be insulting for [gold medal winner] Marina [Anisina] in the first place.... We do not want medals that are extorted with the help of a scandal."
In Lausanne, Switzerland, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, expressed shock at the new allegations.
"The IOC is appalled by the revelations, which came as a total surprise to us," he said in a statement. "While we knew from previous investigations that the judgment in the pairs figure skating was not correct, we are shocked to learn of the alleged involvement of organized crime."
Some Russian officials argued that Tokhtakhunov was too inconsequential to have exercised such influence, others that Russian judges and skaters are simply beyond reproach.
"Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov is a man with an incredible imagination and big fantasies," Shvets said. "He could have simply blurted out without thinking that he would arrange gold medals for the Russian pair, or that he had arranged them. But it was nothing more than a boastful dream."
"Our athletes have always been patriots and have always represented their country with dignity," added Vitaly Smirnov, former head of the Russian Olympic Committee and current vice president of the International Olympic Committee. He said he was aware of efforts in the past to corrupt Russian athletes, but said they had always been rebuffed.
Tokhtakhunov, a colorful gangland figure known popularly as "Taivanchik," or "Little Taiwanese," was born in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan and holds Russian and Israeli citizenship. Although he hasn't lived in Russia for more than a decade, he is reputed to be one of the country's three or four top mob bosses.
Mikhail Nazarkin, a Russian Interior Ministry expert on organized crime, said Tokhtakhunov is a legendary card shark who has also been implicated in contract murders, financial fraud, racketeering and money laundering.