Gafur Rakhimov, a businessman from Uzbekistan who has been linked by US authorities to organized crime, has promised to “make boxing great again” following his appointment as president of the International Boxing Association, the body responsible for overseeing the amateur sport.
The International Olympic Committee, which recently ceased funding the federation, seems far less enthusiastic, however. A representative of the IOC said on January 28 that they were “extremely worried” about governance at the AIBA.
The IOC statement came one day after Rakhimov, who has been identified by the US Treasury as a member of a group involved in the transnational heroin trade, was anointed head of the troubled organization’s interim president.
AIBA says it has no concerns over Rakhimov, who is taking over following a leadership crisis at the association.
Former President Wu Ching-kuo of Taiwan stepped down last year in the wake of a multi-million dollar accounting scandal. Former Italian boxer Franco Falcinelli, who has long served as AIBA’s vice president, then took over.
But in an unexpected turn of events, Falcinelli resigned the post at a January 27 extraordinary congress, paving the way for Rakhimov — the next most senior vice president — to slide in.
The IOC announced it had stopped funding the association late last year, shortly after the controversy surrounding Wu's exit.
Gafur Rakhimov, 66, is believed to reside in Dubai, although according to the US Treasury, he also has an address in Moscow.
Washington maintains Rakhimov is a member of “The Brothers’ Circle," a criminal group "composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union.”
Two Kyrgyz-born mobsters recognized by the treasury as Rakhimov’s fellow “brothers”, Kamchi Kolbayev and Almanbet Anapiyayev, are also understood to live in the United Arab Emirates. Both are also keen patrons of sport.
But Rakhimov’s ties don’t stop at the criminal underworld. Among his fellow board members at AIBA, for instance, is Timur Kulibayev, high-powered businessman and son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In 2014, the US Treasury connected him to Adam Delikhanov, who is a serving member of parliament for the ruling United Russia party and a key supporter of Chechen hardman leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Delikhanov was being sanctioned by executive order, the Treasury said at the time, because Delikhanov was “acting for or on behalf of” Rakhimov, “a key member of the Brothers’ Circle.”
US Treasury actions are chiefly intended to target the activities of transnational criminal groups and insulate the US economy from potential laundering.
Until recently, Rakhimov faced obstacles of a different sort owing to the fact that he had an Interpol Red Notice out on his name.
This status would surely have posed further headaches for AIBA and the IOC, which are both headquartered in Lausanne.
A 2016 report from RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, suggests that Rakhimov’s appearance and disappearance from the Interpol list might have been much to do with the vicissitudes of domestic politics in Uzbekistan.
At one point favored by the late President Islam Karimov, Rakhimov had fallen foul of Karimova’s elder daughter Gulnara Karimova by around 2012, according to Ozodlik’s sources.
This development badly damaged his business interests in his homeland and persuaded him to make his move to the UAE permanent.
Karimova subsequently fell on hard times herself, and is currently imprisoned. But it wasn’t until Karimov’s death and the emergence of former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the country’s leader, that Rakhimov vanished from the list.
If Rakhimov's apparent links to crime and authoritarian political intrigue might make him seem a dubious candidate to lead amateur boxing, his nationality is nevertheless somewhat appropriate.
Having won a single bronze at the London Olympics in 2012, Uzbekistan’s boxers took the sport by storm at the 2016 version in Rio, scoring more medals across various categories than their counterparts from any other country.
How much weight that will carry with the all-important IOC remains to be seen.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.