On Sunday, ESPN's Outside the Lines program will revisit the seminal, scandalous event in skating history at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that prompted a complete overhaul of the judging system. ESPN correspondent John Barr will have an exclusive interview with Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov (see below right), who is accused of being the mastermind of the conspiracy to fix the pairs and ice dancing competitions. I recently had a chance to speak with Barr about his report.
In Salt Lake City, a French judge was bribed into giving lower marks to Canadian pairs team Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, such that Russian team Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze (the latter now a politician) won the gold, with the Canadians winning the silver. When an investigation revealed the bribery, the Olympic Committee awarded Salé and Pelletier their deserved gold medal (link to story). The conspiracy also allegedly involved a Russian judge awarding high marks to the French ice dancing team of Marina Anissa and Gwendal Peizerat, who won gold. Anissa, who was born in Russia and emigrated to France to skate with Peizerat, also happened to be close friends with Tokhtakhounov.
ESPN will present Tokhtakhounov's first interview with non-Russian TV on Sunday’s Outside the Lines (9:30 a.m. ET ESPN; noon ESPNEWS). Tokhtakhounov, under a U.S. indictment and on the wanted list internationally for alleged ties to Russian organized crime, tells correspondent Barr:
I would like the American audience to know the truth about me, that all that’s being written about me is completely untrue…[I'm] a successful businessman, a patron of the arts, a community worker. That’s what I call myself today.
Some people, however, have a different viewpoint. "Well, John Gotti said that. Paul Castellano said that. Members of the Gambino crime family said that," responded Dennis Bolles, head of the FBI Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, who also was interviewed for the piece.
In our conversation, Barr told me that the story idea to obtain an interview with Tokhtakhounov arose in the midst of the alleged corruption in tennis involving #4-ranked player in the world, Ukrainian Nikolay Davydenko. Tokhtakhounov also has ties to the Russian Tennis Federation and was linked to high profile Russian tennis players. But who was this man accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to fix the pairs and ice dancing events during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City?
Barr was advised to bring a security detail to Moscow to interview Tokhtakhounov, whom he described as "charming -- by no means intimidating -- and light-hearted." The interview ran longer than expected and afterwards, they went out to dinner, with Tokhtakhounov inviting Barr and his crew to his villa (he owns 20 homes throughout the world) the following day. Tokhtakhounov has been living in Moscow for the past six years, and because there is no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Russia, he plans on staying put in this safe haven. Currently, he is the president of the Russian soccer foundation, where he acts mainly as a fundraiser.
There were multiple reasons cited for the alleged conspiracy, ranging from Tokhtakhounov needing a French visa or his bankrolling hockey in Paris. Indeed, Tokhtakhounov proclaims that there was no conspiracy and the affair was a misunderstanding of the highest order. When asked why he did not want to come to the U.S. to prove his innocence, Tokhtakhounov explained, "What, they’ll give me 20 years and I’ll sit in prison? I’m 60, sentencing me to that is the same as giving me a life sentence."
I also asked Barr about his interviews with Salé and Pelletier, whom he described as "nice, sweet people." Barr said that after they were awarded the co-gold medal upon completion of the investigation, there was no bitterness or anger. Pelletier stated that with regard to Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, "we could have been friends, or enemies." After the Olympics, both pairs traveled on the same bus while touring professionally and became good friends. Pelletier and Sikharulidze would talk politics, and Salé and Berezhnaya would talk hair and makeup. Also, Barr believes, Salé and Pelletier recognized that the judging scandal and their gracious conduct during and afterwards elevated their fame to a level that they may not have otherwise achieved on their own.
It was a treat to get more of the backstory from Barr, and I can't wait to see the piece when it airs!