Can A Kazakh Sports Hero Knock Out An Alleged Uzbek Crime Boss And Save Olympic Boxing?

Two former Soviet boxers from Central Asia are squaring off in a bout for the presidency of amateur boxing’s world governing body — the International Boxing Association (AIBA).

The outcome could also determine boxing’s future as an Olympic sport.

In The Shadowy Corner…

In the incumbent’s corner is Gafur Rakhimov of Uzbekistan, a controversial figure who has been the AIBA interim president since January.

Under rules adopted by the AIBA in January, the AIBA Election Committee this month declared Rakhimov the only valid candidate for November 3, when 203 national boxing federations vote in Moscow for the next AIBA president.

His candidacy comes with controversy, however.

The U.S. Treasury Department has blacklisted Rakhimov as “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals,” as a key figure in the international heroin trade, and for alleged links to a notorious international criminal network known as “thieves-in-law.”

Rakhimov denies those allegations.

Gafur Rakhimov (left) attends a sports congress in Ankara in 1998

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has frozen all working ties and financial payments to the AIBA and threatened to drop Olympic boxing in 2020 if Rakhimov is elected, warning that the allegations against him are “affecting not just the reputation of AIBA and boxing but of sport in general.”

In The Challenger’s Corner…

The challenger is AIBA Vice President Serik Konakbaev — a legendary Soviet-era boxer from Kazakhstan who also heads the Asian Boxing Confederation.

Konakbaev was struck by a powerful blow on October 1 when the AIBA Election Committee disqualified him because letters of support from at least 20 national boxing federations had not arrived by registered mail at AIBA headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, before a September 23 deadline.

Soviet boxer Serik Konakbaev (left) poses with American boxer Alfred Mayes at an event in Moscow in January 1982.

But Konakbaev didn’t throw in the towel. He responded by filing an urgent appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

The appeal challenges his disqualification by citing a Swiss law that says the legal filing date for a deadline falling on a Sunday, a nonbusiness day, is the following Monday.

Konakbaev argues that means his candidacy application deadline was Monday, September 24 — the date when the required nomination forms from a last-minute wave of support arrived.

CAS judges said on October 9 that they would announce “within days” whether Konakbaev should be provisionally added to the candidate list pending a final decision.

If the international court rules that Konakbaev is out, Rakhimov would be elected at the AIBA’s Moscow conference.

Paths To Power

With the exception of the criminal allegations against the 67-year-old Rakhimov, he and the 58-year-old Konakbaev have followed similar paths to become top administrators in the world of amateur boxing.

Both were born in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and grew up just 300 kilometers from one another — Rakhimov in Tashkent and Konakbaev in Kazakhstan’s southern city of Zhambyl, which now goes by its historic name of Taraz.

They both began boxing in Soviet-era youth programs before becoming boxing coaches.

Konakbaev was more successful as an amateur boxer – becoming a national hero by winning silver medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1982 World Championships, as well as gold medals at the European Championships in 1979 and 1981.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both Rakhimov and Konakbaev became wealthy owners of private agricultural companies with ties to the state sector.

Silver medalist Serik Konakbaev (left) of the U.S.S.R. and gold medalist Patrizio Oliva of Italy during the awards ceremony for the men’s light welterweight division at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Rakhimov’s firms were involved in the import and export of agricultural products — including Uzbekistan’s lucrative cotton business, which has come under criticism for its use of forced labor.

Konakbaev, who received a civil-engineering degree in 1981 from an agricultural university in Taraz, owns a series of agribusinesses in Kazakhstan’s southern region of Zhambyl.

As they grew richer, Rakhimov and Konakbaev both continued to advance boxing in their countries through sponsorship of the sport and roles on their national Olympic committees.

They also both developed strong ties with the first post-Soviet presidents of their countries — Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan.

Konakbaev became a member of Nazarbaev’s ruling Fatherland Party, Nur-Otan, during the 1990s. He was elected to the lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, in 1999 and 2004.

Konakbaev also received a law degree in 1999 and a doctorate in economics in 2006 from Akhmet Yasaui University in Kazakhstan’s southern city of Turkistan.

Rakhimov served as the president of the Asian Boxing Confederation and as an AIBA vice president before Konakbaev took on those same posts.

Rakhimov is still listed as “honorary president” of the Asian Boxing Confederation.

Both men also have ties with some of the most powerful oligarchs from their homelands.

Rakhimov has been associated with the Uzbek-born Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s so-called “Kremlin list” of oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Konakbaev is a personal friend and former boxing adviser to Kazakh oligarch Timur Kulibaev, who is the president of Kazakhstan’s National Olympic Committee, head of the Kazakhstan Boxing Federation, and a son-in-law of President Nazarbaev.

Paths Diverge

While Konakbaev remains a loyal ally of Kazakhstan’s president, Rakhimov fell out with the late president Karimov and had lost most of his business holdings in Uzbekistan by 2010, when he fled the country.

Rakhimov says the criminal allegations against him are based on “false” accusations by his political enemies in Uzbekistan.

He told AFP on October 6 that he has “never been involved in transnational criminal organizations or whatever has been said” about him.

In July, he successfully petitioned Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s government to remove his name from Uzbekistan’s “wanted list” of alleged criminals — allowing him to return to Tashkent for the first time since 2010 in a bid to “clear his name.”

That move also was aimed at bolstering the legal battle by his lawyers in the United States to have his name removed from the U.S. sanctions list.

He says he is “very confident the mistake will be corrected” during the first three months of 2019.

But the IOC has said it’s not just the lingering criminal allegations against Rakhimov that threaten the future of Olympic boxing.

An IOC statement on October 3 said its “grave” concerns about the AIBA’s governance also include “the circumstances of the establishment of the election list and misleading communication within the AIBA membership regarding the IOC’s position.”

Meanwhile, the IOC’s concerns about the election process also have exposed deep divisions within the AIBA.

With contributions from RFE/RL’s Kazakh and Uzbek services
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