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Europeans unravel massive tennis match-fixing ring

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PARIS — The crooked tennis players knew him as “Maestro.” To European investigators, the Armenian based in Belgium is emerging as the suspected ringleader of an organized gambling syndicate suspected of fixing hundreds of matches and paying off more than 100 players from around Europe.

As Roger Federer and other stars at the top of tennis compete in the Australian Open, players far lower down the sport’s food chain are being questioned this week by police in France on suspicion of fixing matches for Grigor Sargsyan, 28-year-old known as the Maestro, investigators said. Sargsyan is being held in a Belgian jail.

The picture emerging from months of digging by police working across Europe is of a massive match-fixing scheme, organized via encrypted messaging, involving dozens of low-ranked players in small tournaments with little prize money. Police say Sargsyan employed mules, people hired for a few euros (dollars) to place bets for the syndicate that were small enough to slip under the radar of gambling watchdogs.

Sources close to the investigation, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss details publicly, said four French players were in police custody on Wednesday and at least one of them told investigators that he fixed around two dozen matches for Sargsyan.

They named the players as Jules Okala, 21; Mick Lescure, 25; Yannick Thivant, 31; and Jerome Inzerillo, 28. None operated in the highest spheres of tennis. The career-best singles ranking of any of them was 354, reached by Inzerillo in 2012. The arrests of Okala and Lescure were first reported Wednesday by French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

A dozen or more other French players are expected to be questioned in coming weeks. An investigator said France was one of the countries “hardest hit” by the syndicate, which targeted lower-level pro tournaments. Okala and Lescure were detained before they were to play in a modest tournament in Bressuire, western France, this week that offers a total of $15,000 in prize money.

Investigators have also questioned players in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, and Bulgaria and are looking to question others, including both players and managers, in the United States, Chile and Egypt.

In all, more than 100 players are suspected of having worked with the syndicate, fixing matches, sets or games in exchange for payments of 500 to 3,000 euros ($570 to $3,400).

“The impression we’re getting is that it is very commonplace,” one official told The Associated Press. Another said several hundred matches are thought to have been fixed.

Investigators fear that players used by the syndicate could suck others into the scheme and could go on to infect bigger tournaments if they climb higher in the rankings.

“In time, they could be managers of other new players or trainers so we have to get them out of the system, or they could corrupt others in a few years,” one official told The Associated Press.

Sargsyan was swept up in a wave of arrests in Belgium last June and faces organized crime, match fixing, money laundering and forgery charges. A suspected banker for the syndicate also faces money laundering and organized crime charges, while four others are being investigated for illegal gambling and finding mules, who are thought to have been paid for placing modest bets for the syndicate on matches that it fixed.

Because the bets were small, the risk of detection was “almost zero,” but the profits could still be considerable if many bets were placed, one official said.

Still unclear is whether the Belgium-based syndicate was linked to another match-fixing and gambling operation, also involving Armenians, unraveled in Spain . Spanish police last week announced that 28 professional tennis players, including one who participated in last year’s U.S. Open, were linked to that ring, taking bribes to fix results that the group bet on using fake identities.

Kristoffersen topples Hirscher to win giant slalom at worlds

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ARE, Sweden — Norwegian skiing is in safe hands, even with its beloved king now in retirement.

Henrik Kristoffersen gave Norway its second individual gold medal of the world championships by toppling an under-the-weather Marcel Hirscher to win the giant slalom on Friday.

With Kjetil Jansrud also victorious in the downhill last week, Norway appears in great shape heading into the post-Aksel Lund Svindal era.

Svindal signed off his illustrious career with a silver medal behind Jansrud in the downhill, and said he was leaving behind a strong generation of Norwegian skiing talent.

Kristoffersen is at the forefront of that — especially now that he has ended his long wait for a medal at a world championship.

The 24-year-old Kristoffersen had finished fourth in his last three races at the worlds — the giant slalom and slalom in 2017 and the slalom in 2015 — and headed into his second run of the GS in third place behind leader Alexis Pinturault and Hirscher, the favorite and one of skiing’s all-time greats.

However, Kristoffersen produced an aggressive run under the lights, his speed and flow particularly apparent in the bottom section, to win by 0.20 seconds over Hirscher. Pinturault won the bronze medal, 0.42 seconds back.

“It was about time to get a medal,” said Kristoffersen, who wasn’t necessarily expecting it to come in GS.

Kristoffersen’s last win in the discipline came at Meribel in 2015 and he has been consistently behind Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup winner and defending Olympic and world GS champion. He finished second to Hirscher at last year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Kristoffersen was without a win in any discipline for a year but said he gained confidence from the course being doused with salt to maintain the snow surface amid unseasonably warm weather. The temperature in Are for the first leg was 8 C (46 F).

“There’s no one that skis on salt as much as Norwegians do,” he said. “Even though I haven’t trained on salt in GS in a long, long time, I have it from childhood.”

Hirscher’s preparations for the race were affected by a bout of flu that kept him in bed for much of the past two days. He acknowledged after the race that the likelihood of him lining up on the starting gate wasn’t high on Thursday.

“Normally,” Hirscher said, “if you have regular work on those days, you normally tell your boss I’m done for the day.”

Yet he managed to be only 0.10 seconds behind Pinturault after an error-free first run, keeping Hirscher on course for a record-tying seventh gold medal at the worlds. But he went wide at two gates in the top section of his second run, causing him to lose 0.41 seconds on Kristoffersen in the middle section.

“Second place is the first loser but Henrik had an amazing day with two great runs,” Hirscher said. “Henrik is at the top for such a long time. He was more than ready for a world title.”

Hirscher, who was noticeably sniffing after the race, added that he was “looking forward to getting back to bed again” to rest up ahead of Sunday’s slalom.

When Pinturault crossed the finish line in third place, Kristoffersen clenched his fists before walking into the finish area, crouching on one knee and acknowledging the jubilant Norwegian fans in the grandstand.

For Pinturault, it was his second medal of the championships after winning the Alpine combined on Monday.

Wesenberg wins first U.S. skeleton World Cup medal in two years

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With a bronze medal in Lake Placid earlier today, Kendall Wesenberg became the first American to reach the World Cup podium in skeleton in two years.

Wesenberg, who finished 17th at her first Olympics in PyeongChang, had a combined time of 1:51.10 in Lake Placid. Prior to today, her last podium finish at the World Cup was in St. Moritz in January 2017.

“This has never been my strongest track, so we really broke it down piece by piece, and I think it paid off,” Wesenberg said, according to USA Bobsled and Skeleton. “The second run, I kind of tried to throw it away at the top there. By the time I made it to corner 10, I was just thinking ‘build speed, build speed.”

Wesenberg, 28, grew up in California’s Central Valley, but her interest in sliding sports piqued while watching the 2010 Vancouver Games. When the commentators discussed the athletic backgrounds of the athletes, Wesenberg realized she played some of the same sports growing up. A quick Google search brought her to the USA Bobsled and Skeleton page. She told her siblings she was thinking of trying skeleton. They said she’d never do it. Challenge accepted.

Wesenberg emailed a U.S. coach and signed up for a combine and driving training in January 2011. Seven years later, she was sliding on Olympic ice.

Sliding coverage continues today on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, with women’s bobsled live at 3:15 p.m. ET and men’s bobsled live at 4:15.