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President of National Olympic Committees association leaves FIFA post amid bribery claims

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GENEVA (AP) — FIFA Council member Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait is resigning from his soccer roles under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed Asian officials.

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia, which he currently holds.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses,” said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions,” he said.

The long-time Olympic Council of Asia president contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s soccer federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.

Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari’s failed challenge to FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.

Sheikh Ahmad has also contacted the IOC’s ethics commission about the allegations against him, the IOC said on Saturday.

As president since 2012 of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, Sheikh Ahmad’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic election and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.

Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.

The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai’s court hearing which said “co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia.” Sheikh Ahmad has been OCA president since 1991.

Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a “high-ranking” role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he “received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014.”

“I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2,” Lai said in court.

Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait’s interests.

The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.

The Asian election for FIFA seats on May 8 in Manama, Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later.

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Oldest Olympic high jump champion retires

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Spain’s Ruth Beitia, who in Rio became the oldest Olympic high jump champion by six years, announced her retirement at age 38 on Wednesday.

Beitia was pending medical results for possible arthritis, according to Marca.

She followed her Olympic title with silver at the European Indoor Championships in March but didn’t crack the top three at any 2017 Diamond League meet and was 12th at the world championships in August, her final meet.

Beitia capped a decorated career in Rio with her first Olympic medal. She did so against a field that did not include the reigning Olympic or world champions from Russia.

Beitia cleared 1.97 meters to win in Rio, the shortest gold-medal height since 1980, to become the oldest Olympic gold medalist in any jumping event. German long jumper Heike Drechsler previously held the age record.

Two women in the Rio heptathlon — gold medalist Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium and Brit Katarina Johnson-Thompson — cleared 1.98 meters in that competition.

Beitia previously retired after finishing fourth at the 2012 Olympics, then came back to win her first World Outdoor Championships medal, a bronze, in 2013.

“A medal in Rio would be the last dream I have left to accomplish in this sport,” she said before the Olympics.

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Nate Holland still motivated by repeated Olympic heartbreak

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At 38 years old, Nate Holland knows PyeongChang would likely be his last chance to add an Olympic medal to a trophy case already blinding with seven X Games snowboard cross gold medals.

“I’m not there to get top 10 and go check out a hockey game,” Holland said last month. “I’ve had three Olympics that I’ve done that.”

Holland entered all three Olympics since snowboard cross debuted as the reigning X Games champion. A medal contender, if not the favorite.

He washed out each time. In the quarterfinals in Torino. In the four-man final in Vancouver. In the first elimination round in Sochi.

“There’s something about these five rings that give me a lot of drive, ambition and joy,” Holland said on NBC after his 2014 disappointment, “but they do cause a lot of heartbreak.”

Some snowboarders are ambivalent about the Olympics. Not Holland.

He remembers watching the 1988 Calgary Winter Games growing up in Idaho, a decade before snowboarders were let in. After snowboard cross was added in 2003, a motivated Holland made the subsequent World Cup team and reached the podium.

Holland chalked up a 14th-place finish in Torino in 2006 to being “young and reckless.” The miss that sticks with him to this day is Vancouver 2010, when he was the only finalist not to earn a medal.

“That’s probably the No. 1 memory of racing is that feeling of failure when I got to the bottom,” he said. “Out of a four-man heat, they’re ushering me off, pushing me out of the finish corral.

“Dude, you gotta leave. What are you doing here still? We’ve got to do a podium ceremony.”

“I’m still out of breath. My heart rate’s at 180 still.”

“What’s going on? No, dude, you need to leave. Thanks for coming, goodbye.”

“Those are motivating factors in the gym when all I want to do is go home and go change some diapers,” Holland said.

Holland and wife Christen (who commissioned that trophy case as a Christmas gift) welcomed daughter Lux on Nov. 1, 2015. Lux is already riding on her own three-foot Burton board. In Uggs.

“Thank God for FaceTime,” Holland said. “I’m able to call every day when I’m in Europe and have breakfast with my daughter.”

Her dad is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic snowboarder in the sport’s two-decade history and the oldest medalist from any country.

“Some say I’m too old,” Holland says. “I say BS.”

Holland is realistic, though. The man who used to ride by the motto “wreck or win” has become more calculated and listens to his body. The Advil doses are more frequent. He enjoys the spa.

“I come back every year and there’s definitely some question in my mind whether I’m fast,” said Holland, whose detailed injury history included coming back from a December 2013 broken clavicle to win X Games and make the Olympic team. “Every year, I give myself a little pat on the back. I’m like, all right, I’m still in that group. I’m not sitting three seconds out.”

Holland was the fastest at the PyeongChang venue on Feb. 27, 2016, winning the Olympic test event.

He may have picked up nuances on the new Olympic course that the riders half his age have not, but Holland also hasn’t made a World Cup podium since. Snowboard cross was cut from the X Games after 2016.

If Holland can’t crack the top three at any of the four Olympic selection events in December and January, he might be left off the U.S. team.

Holland said he won’t work any harder this winter than he did in 2006, 2010 or 2014. Each time, he felt satisfied with what he put in. What he left the Olympics with — Team USA clothes, maybe some hockey ticket stubs — is what’s unfulfilling.

“You want something that you can’t have,” he said. “I don’t have an Olympic medal, and I’m really passionate about it.”

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