Corruption in sports

Black Tidings: The Singapore connection in Olympics probe

S'porean behind now-defunct firm known in music fraternity rather than in Olympic circles

The registered address of now-defunct Black Tidings led to a Housing Board flat in Dakota Crescent. Black Tidings was revealed to have alleged ties to an extortion and doping scandal involving Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova (left) and the Internat
The registered address of now-defunct Black Tidings led to a Housing Board flat in Dakota Crescent. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
The registered address of now-defunct Black Tidings led to a Housing Board flat in Dakota Crescent. Black Tidings was revealed to have alleged ties to an extortion and doping scandal involving Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova (left) and the Internat
Black Tidings was revealed to have alleged ties to an extortion and doping scandal involving Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova (above) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) two years ago. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

A dimly lit stairway leads up to the unit while the smell of incense, as a Taoist medium clad in religious garb leads a ritual in an adjacent apartment, fills the air.

A Housing Board flat in Dakota Crescent is hardly the place one would expect to find a marketing consultancy, let alone one which reportedly played a role in helping Tokyo win the bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

The less-than-impressive unit is the registered address of the now-defunct Singapore-based firm Black Tidings, its appearance and location adding intrigue to a saga of Olympic proportions.

The firm, owned by Singaporean Ian Tan, 34, made headlines when British newspaper The Guardian reported that French authorities were looking into suspicious payments made by the Tokyo bid team, allegedly to influence the vote to decide the 2020 Olympic host. Japan has also launched its own probe into the matter.

They are questioning the US$2 million (S$2.8 million) in consulting fees paid to Black Tidings by the Tokyo bid team in 2013. That year, Tokyo beat Madrid and Istanbul to win the hosting rights to the quadrennial Games.

The transaction raised eyebrows as, just two years ago, German broadcaster ARD/WDR revealed Black Tidings' alleged ties to an extortion and doping scandal involving Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

When The Sunday Times called Mr Tan, he said he was assisting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) with investigations and declined to comment. The CPIB is helping the French authorities' Tokyo bid probe.

Asian Athletics Association (AAA) secretary-treasurer Maurice Nicholas, who met Mr Tan in 2014 when the latter was helping the AAA secure sponsorship, said he was surprised by the allegations.

Mr Nicholas, who last saw Mr Tan at last year's IAAF World Championships, said: "He seemed like a nice chap, a genuine young man coming up in life. I was quite surprised to hear about all these."

A friend of Mr Tan, who declined to be named, described him as "a nice guy" who seems well-connected in the local music scene. It is understood that he had worked on starting a singing school in the early 2000s.

Mr Tan's LinkedIn profile has testimonials - from 2007 to 2009 - from former colleagues and clients from his time as a freelance marketeer, a marketing analyst with technology firm Oracle and campaign manager with marketing agency McCorkell & Associates.

But it is his involvement as owner of Black Tidings, which was registered in 2006 and terminated in 2014, which has brought him worldwide attention. Japanese officials claim the US$2 million fee is legitimate payment for consulting services, but the company's links to the corruption-plagued IAAF have investigators suspecting otherwise.

  • The key facts

  • What is Black Tidings?

    • A Singapore marketing consultancy incorporated in 2006.

    • It is involved in questionable monetary transactions at the heart of two alleged corruption cases in international sport.

    •Company terminated in 2014.

    Who is Ian Tan?

    •Black Tidings' 34-year-old sole proprietor.

    •Spent several years working in China, where he befriended Papa Massata Diack - son of Senegal's shamed former IAAF president Lamine Diack - during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

    •Became close friends with Diack Jr, and Mr Tan himself told investigators that they continued on "ad hoc projects" together.

    •Mr Tan is listed as shareholder and director of The Sporting Age (Asia Pacific), a firm described in a World Anti-Doping Agency report as being headquartered in Dakar, Senegal.

    •Retained as a consultant on IAAF events, including the 2015 Beijing World Championships.

    •Found by investigators to have access to high-level IAAF officials, including Diack Sr, and was a regular attendee at IAAF events.

    •Married with one son - named Massata - born in 2014.

    The Black Tidings trail

    MARCH 2014

    •Black Tidings transferred €300,000 (S$465,000) via Standard Chartered Bank to Igor Shobukhova, the husband of Russian Liliya Shobukhova, a former winner of the London and Chicago marathons.

    •The couple claimed the money was a refund, after they reportedly paid officials a total of €450,000 in a failed attempt to cover up the marathoner's positive drug tests in 2011 and to continue competing in the 2012 Olympics.

    MAY 2016

    •Britain's The Guardian reported that a seven-figure sum, believed to be around US$2 million (S$2.8 million), was paid by the Tokyo 2020 bid team to Black Tidings.

    •The newspaper also reported that payments were believed to have been made before and after the bid was awarded in 2013.

    •Diack Sr is now barred from leaving France, pending further probe. He was a member of the International Olympic Committee from 1999 to 2013, and honorary member thereafter until he resigned last November after allegations of receiving more than €1 million in bribes to cover up positive Russian drug tests.

    •Diack Jr is wanted by Interpol for alleged corruption and money laundering.

In 2014, €300,000 (S$465,000) was transferred from Black Tidings' bank account as a "refund" to Shobukhova, who had been told to cough up the amount to cover up a positive drug test in 2011.

The Singaporean is a known associate of Mr Papa Massata Diack - son of Senegal's disgraced former IAAF president Lamine Diack, who was put under investigation by French police last November for alleged corruption. He is now free on bail but barred from leaving France. Mr Tan and the younger Mr Diack had met at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mr Diack Jr, a former IAAF marketing consultant, is wanted by Interpol for alleged money laundering and corruption. He is also banned for life by the IAAF ethics committee over corruption and cover-up allegations.

The extent of their friendship is perhaps reflected by the fact that when Mr Tan's son was born in 2014, he was named Massata.

French investigators said they stumbled on the Olympic transaction as part of their investigations into alleged fraud at the IAAF.

Mr Tan and Black Tidings' involvement in the Tokyo bid is unusual, said Mr Duncan Mackay, editor of insidethegames, a news website specialising in reporting on major games.

"It is unusual, but not unprecedented for a company with no previous record in bidding, to be employed to work on a campaign. Once they have been employed, however, you would expect to see the company and its individuals attending the many events where bids gather to lobby," he told The Sunday Times.

"I travelled extensively during the campaign for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics following the bids, and never once heard anyone mention - let alone introduce me to - Ian Tan Tong Han and Black Tidings."

The US$2 million, sent in two tranches, before and after the International Olympic Committee vote in 2013, also raises suspicion.

Mr Mackay said: "All the consultancy companies I know that work in the Olympic movement insist on being paid monthly, so they can manage their business (paying their staff and bills) in a professional manner."

Sources familiar with the Olympic bidding scene also told The Sunday Times that Singapore has had no previous track record in providing expertise to countries seeking to host the Olympics.

While Black Tidings was terminated in 2014, a search of Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) records found that Mr Tan also owns two other companies, The Sporting Age (Asia Pacific) and Goal Up!, both described as consultancies in their Acra records. The Sporting Age was described in a January World Anti-Doping Agency report as a firm based in Senegal.

Like Black Tidings, both businesses were registered to residential addresses, The Sporting Age in Punggol and Goal Up! in Serangoon Road.

When The Sunday Times visited these two properties, the Punggol address led to a newly renovated flat, while the other was a unit above a coffee shop. No one answered the door at both places.

Lawyer Samuel Sharpe, head of white collar crime practice at Duane Morris & Selvam LLP, said if allegations that the money was paid to influence the Tokyo bid is true, it could constitute criminal offences under Singapore and Japanese anti- corruption laws. It is also possible that other parties could be drawn in - if the allegations are proven true.

He added: "Anti-bribery laws with an international reach, such as the United Kingdom Bribery Act and United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, have a wide application when it comes to individuals and organisations involved in international bribery schemes. But it is far too early to draw any conclusions.

"With Black Tidings no longer an operating entity, it may be harder to carry out detailed investigations and prosecute officers linked to it. This will depend in part on how much documentary evidence (such as e-mail records) is still available."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline Black Tidings: The Singapore connection in Olympics probe. Subscribe