Boxing and boxers may end up as collateral damage in Putin’s dirty war

Gazprom deal believed to be pumping around $31m into the International Boxing Association

Is it too soon to speak about Gazprom, or is the golden happy half-hour in Istanbul still shield enough against the evidence of power and greed and yet more collateral damage in Putin’s dirty war. That’s a sentence not a question.

For a women’s amateur boxing championships there were certainly lots of big fat cheques being handed out over the last few days. Totalling $2.4 million to be exact, including $100,000 for each of the dozen weight category gold medal winners, $50,000 for winning silver, and $25,000 for winning bronze, which in boxing happens twice because there is no fourth place. Work that out in euro in your head.

In the 11 previous editions of these championships all the medal winners got a big fat zero. Upping that to $2.4 million is all part of the grand rebranding plan of the International Boxing Association (IBA), last year dropping all reference to the once Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) now that money talks and swears.

No prizes for guessing who is pumping all the cash into this operation. If the Gazprom signage on the ring corner pads in Istanbul didn’t give it away then the Gazprom name and emblem on these celebratory cardboard cheques awarded to the medal winners surely did.

This being the Russian majority state-owned gas behemoth Gazprom, with annual sales of over $120 billion, the largest natural gas company in the world and the largest company in Russia by revenue. It's no secret that Gazprom is of massive economic value to Putin's government. Along with petroleum giants Rosneft and Lukoil, it contributed $38 billion in tax and other payments to the government in 2020.

State companies

Gazprom is 38 per cent owned by the Kremlin, two other Russian state companies owning an additional 12 per cent. No prizes for guessing where much of that money is going right now and it’s destroying somewhere beginning with U.

It's the reason Uefa severed its 12-year sponsorship agreement with Gazprom after Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine, that deal worth around €44 million per year. German team Schalke 04 also dropped Gazprom as its shirt sponsor. In March the European Union banned all investments in the Russian energy sector, including Gazprom, and the US and UK governments are among those to add further sanctions.

According to the Inside the Games website, who know their stuff on these matters, the Gazprom deal is pumping around $31 million into the IBA. We don’t know that for sure because IBA says it’s “commercially confidential” but it’s hard to see where else the cash is coming from.

Since December 2017 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has suspended all funding to the IBA, previously AIBA, given its history of corruption, and questioned the Gazprom deal last December, well before the invasion. Last week it detailed again in writing its "significant concerns" over the governance, integrity of judges and financial sustainability of the organisation.

Boxing, as you must be tired of hearing, is fighting to survive as an Olympic sport. The man essentially in charge of that process is Umar Kremlev, a 39-year-old Russian businessman who at the IBA extraordinary congress last Saturday secured a new four-year term as IBA president, through to 2026.

Not after any election, incidentally, but by acclaim rather after his chief rival, Boris van der Vorst from the Netherlands, plus four other candidates, were deemed ineligible 24 hours previously by the Boxing Independent Integrity Unit for “campaigning outside the electoral period”.

Election

Hardly concealing his fear over where the IBA was headed, Van der Vorst appealed that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which did delay the election for another 24 hours, before Kremlev went ahead with it anyway.

Here's where things get interesting. The only thing we know for sure about Umar Kremlev is that his name isn't Umar Kremlev. His real name is Umar Lutfuloev, but he changed that after allegations of criminal convictions prior to his election as secretary general to the Boxing Federation of Russia in 2019.

IBA statutes state all candidates must be able to prove that they have never been convicted of a criminal offence, but Lutfuloev was reportedly convicted twice for racketeering. The McLaren Independent AIBA Investigation, published in December 2021, also alleged he failed to disclose on a compliance form that he changed his previous name (from Umar Lutfuloev) under which he had a criminal record.

Kremlev also served on the IBA executive committee after Gafur Rakhimov was elected president in 2018, despite his status with the US treasury department as "one of Uzbekistan's leading criminals", known to Interpol as "an important person involved in the heroin trade" who was connected to the Thieves-in-Law organised crime group.

In the meantime, before taking over as IBA president in December 2020, Kremlev claimed he would personally clear the organisation’s debt of $16 million. Where that money would come from was never revealed. Last August, speaking on International Boxing Day in Belgrade, Kremlev declared IBA “debt-free”, just like that, claiming to have raised $50 million in the seven months since his election.

Motorcycle group

Kremlev previously belonged to the Wolves of the Night, a pro-Kremlin motorcycle group, has in the past praised Putin for his backing, and after his re-election last Saturday was congratulated by Russia's sports minister Oleg Matytsin, who told state news agency Tass "it is especially significant that his re-election took place at a difficult time for Russian sports. I am sure that under the leadership of Kremlev the International Boxing Association will continue to develop successfully."

The IOC is not so sure, raising the matter again at its committee session in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Friday. President Thomas Bach said the relationship with Russia had "dramatically deteriorated over the past years", claiming the country was responsible for "personal threats to individuals".

As it stands boxing has been removed from the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, the IOC likely to run the show in Paris 2024, like it did in Tokyo, unless the IBA properly cleans up its act.

Kremlev appears undaunted, clearly driving the sport down the money path anyway. The IBA has zero intention of dropping any links with Gazprom, or Russia for that matter, not while power and greed stands in the way.

The IBA had no choice but to ban Russia and Belarus from sending any boxers to Istanbul,or risk someone parade around the ring in their Z robes, Yet with this much Russian backing and approval could it be the sport and particularly the boxers end up as collateral damage to Putin’s dirty war. That’s a sentence not a question.