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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.

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s return from destruction, death to sprinting

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