The Tangled Web of Sport, State, and Organized Crime in Russia

When you talk abut business or government or sports or even organized crime in Russia, it may be hard to tell the difference.

After I wrote a piece about the Russian Mafia and tennis, Nina Alberti of TennisInfoBlog contacted me with more information about organized crime in Russia. When I asked her for sources, she came up with information that led to a complex web of connections between sports, business, government and organized crime in the country.

Not to be left out, the K.G.B. – Russia’s communist era C.I.A. – is right in the middle of this mess. And not just in the presidency. Russian president Vladimir Putin is a former member of the intelligence agency that succeeded the K.G.B. but so are many prominent businessmen in Russia according to an article in the New York Times this week.

Organized crime has its connections to business too and it’s more than just skimming the top off their profits. The Times also reported that organized crime laundered money for offshore shell companies that were tied to Russian business interests. One case tied the Russian Mafia to $70 billion that ended up in a tiny island nation in the Pacific.

Nina’s research showed that organized crime became interested in sports in the 1990’s because sports organizations had tax and duty exemptions. One of those sports organizations was the National Sports Fund and its exemptions allowed it to import cigarettes and alcohol tax free. In fact, the NSF became the largest importer of cigarettes and alcohol in the country.

What has this to do with tennis? Current Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev controlled the National Sports Fund while those cigarettes and alcohol were flowing in. Much of that money made its way into political campaigns and, no doubt, created a billionaire or two.

While this tangled web made a lot of people rich, it certainly didn’t help tennis players if you look at Moscow’s Spartak Tennis Club. It’s a dump.
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Spartak is the facility that trained Marat Safin, Anna Kournikova, Elena Dementieva and other Russian tennis stars. Its outdoor tennis courts are only usable six months of the year due to the cold climate and its one indoor court is sporadically heated. Spartak’s training methods are responsible for all of those Russian women in the top twenty.

Organized crime has not only diverted money away from sports but they’ve carried out some deep wounds. The director general of Russia’s most popular soccer team – also called Spartak – and the head of the country’s Ice Hockey Federation were both murdered in contract killings because they weren’t willing to pay the mafia a cut of their profits.

Organized crime might have used sports for tax evasion in the 1990’s but now it has a different use: match fixing. Tennis is an individual sport and it’s much easier to pressure one player to cooperate than an entire team. Combine that with easy access to online gambling and you could have one good explanation for the proliferation of suspicious matches in the past few years.

There’s no quick fix for this and a tennis player would be a double victim if organized crime threatened them or their family to get them to fix a match and the ATP or WTA followed that up by kicking the player out of the game.

This situation could get much uglier before it gets better.

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Read more about the Russian Mafia and tennis.