AP Images

Europeans unravel massive tennis match-fixing ring

Leave a comment

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.

Emily Sweeney posts fastest time in qualifier for luge World Cup opener

Getty Images
Leave a comment

World championship bronze medalist Emily Sweeney placed first in the Nations Cup luge race Friday in Innsbruck, Austria, qualifying with ease for the first World Cup event of the season.

Twelve women, including fellow American Summer Britcher, were seeded directly into the World Cup race. Sweeney, Brittney Arndt and Ashley Farquharson all qualified from the Nations Cup race. Britcher has finished third in the overall World Cup standings for two straight years and is a contender in a wide-open year with seven-time defending champion Natalie Geisenberger taking a year off while pregnant.

MORE: Geisenberg will not race in 2019-20

In the men’s competition, Jonny Gustafson and Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer finished third and fifth in the Nations Cup race to advance. Tucker West claimed the second-to-last qualifying spot to get all three U.S. sliders in Sunday’s World Cup race.

Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman qualified for the doubles competition, ensuring all eight U.S. sliders will see the weekend races.

OlympicChannel.com will have live streaming this weekend (all times ET):

  • Women: Saturday, 4:15 a.m. and 5:40 a.m.
  • Doubles: Saturday, 7:05 a.m. and 8:25 a.m.
  • Men: Sunday, 4 a.m. and 5:35 a.m.
  • Team relay: Sunday, 7:40 a.m.

Highlights will be on television at the following times:

  • Saturday: Olympic Channel, 5:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, Olympic Channel, 5:30 p.m.
  • Sunday: NBCSN, 4:30 p.m.

Next weekend, the World Cup series heads to Lake Placid, N.Y.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Russian track and field federation faces expulsion threat over new doping allegations

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MOSCOW (AP) — The governing body for track and field will consider expelling Russia from membership following new charges that senior officials faked medical records.

Russia has been suspended by World Athletics, formerly known as the IAAF, over widespread doping since 2015. There will be a review of whether vetted Russians should still be allowed to compete in international events as neutrals.

“We need to deal with renegade factions like this,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said Friday in Monaco.

World Athletics has frozen talks about lifting the long-running suspension and asked its Russia task force for recommendations on expelling the country’s track federation.

“It’s not symbolic,” said Coe, who said the charges and suspensions against Russian officials were so wide-ranging that they left the task force with almost no one left to talk to.

One route could be to close the Russian track federation and set up a new national governing body. Russia’s sports minister said he had referred the federation to a commission which oversees such matters.

Federation president Dmitry Shlyakhtin and four other senior officials are accused of obstructing the investigation into 2017 world championship silver medalist Danil Lysenko, who was accused last year of failing to make himself available for drug testing.

Lysenko allegedly provided fake medical documents as an alibi with help from the officials. He and his coach have also been suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit pending full disciplinary hearings.

Also Friday, the three-time world high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene assailed Russian track leaders after they were charged Thursday, saying they have made a “doping nightmare” even worse.

Lasitskene called for swift and radical reforms, and the removal of officials appointed by Shlyakhtin.

Shlyakhtin took office shortly after the federation was suspended from international competition for widespread doping. The suspension remains in place four years later.

“The new team, whose task was to take us out of this doping nightmare, has turned out no better than the old one. And in some ways worse,” Lasitskene wrote on Instagram. “Shlyakhtin and his team must quit their posts immediately and never come back. And I will make sure this happens.”

Lasitskene has won two of her three world titles as a neutral athlete as a result of Russia’s suspension, which also caused her to miss the 2016 Olympics.

“Our track and field is in its death throes and we can’t procrastinate anymore,” she wrote. “We’ve lost four years already. Clean athletes are still defenseless and not sure they’ll be able to compete tomorrow.”

Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov expressed concern about the “emergency situation” and referred the federation to a ministry commission which could officially withdraw its government recognition.

“The future fate of the track and field federation will be examined,” Kolobkov said Friday in a video statement. “For us now, the main thing is that the training process isn’t interrupted. That means all of the athletes will get the help they need to continue the training and competition process.”

Earlier, the Kremlin said the charges against Shlyakhtin and others won’t derail the country’s preparations to compete in next year’s Olympics.

“Undoubtedly, this (situation) requires attention from the sports authorities, and I’m sure they’re dealing with it,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But I don’t see a direct connection with Russia’s participation in the Olympics here.”

With Shlyakhtin suspended, the federation is set to select an interim president at a board meeting on Saturday.

Russia is also facing a World Anti-Doping Agency ruling next month on whether it manipulated data from a lab in Moscow.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!