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Spanish king’s brother-in-law: Olympic glory to royal shame

Inaki Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball player and husband of Spain's Princess Cristina, has been in and out of court since the embezzlement scandal started in 2010
AFP

Madrid (AFP) – A tall and dapper former handball player with two Olympic medals to his name, Inaki Urdangarin went from the “ideal son-in-law” to the black sheep of Spain’s royal family, brought down by a corruption scandal.

The 50-year-old, married to King Felipe VI’s sister, Princess Cristina, began a jail sentence of five years and 10 months on Monday, drawing a line under a corruption case which first emerged in 2010. 

Urdangarin’s incarceration came just days after he lost an appeal against his 2017 conviction for embezzling millions in public funds.

He was found guilty of channelling the money through the Noos Institute, a non-profit foundation he once chaired, to finance a lavish lifestyle.

Gone are the cheerful pictures of him and his family that once lit up Spain’s celebrity press. 

In their stead were images of a morose-looking Urdangarin walking his dog, a supermarket bag tucked under his arm, in Geneva where he, Cristina and their four children have been living in exile.

– ‘The perfect boy’ –

It was a different story entirely in the 1990s when Urdangarin met then king Juan Carlos’s youngest daughter.

Nearly two metres (6.6 feet) tall, he charmed not only her but her family and much of the public.

Leftwing daily El Pais dubbed him “the perfect boy”.

“Inaki is a good, good, very good man,” his mother-in-law, Queen Sofia, told royal affairs correspondent Pilar Urbano in 2008.

“This is the image we Spaniards have all had: of an Olympic lad, clean, impeccable, good-looking, young, very in love with Cristina and a very good father,” Urbano said.

The praise betrayed no hint of the scandal that first emerged in 2010, severely denting the royal family’s popularity.

 Lavish wedding –

Urdangarin was born on January 15, 1968, in Spain’s Basque Country to a Spanish banker father and Belgian mother, the second-youngest of seven children.

He grew up mainly in Barcelona, where he also lived with Cristina following their lavish 1997 wedding, after which he was granted the title of Duke of Palma.

After playing with Spain’s handball team at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, where the team won bronze medals, Urdangarin retired from the sporting world.

He studied at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School, where he met professor Diego Torres, the man who would become his associate.

– Washington move –

In 2004, Urdangarin became chairman of the organisation at the heart of the scandal — the Noos Institute, a non-profit group he headed until 2006 with Torres as his right-hand man.

There was a whiff of scandal that same year when Urdangarin and his royal wife reportedly spent some six million euros ($6.5 million) on a luxury house.

In 2009, Urdangarin and his family moved to Washington at the request of his father-in-law, King Juan Carlos, where he worked for Spain’s telecoms giant Telefonica.

The following year an investigation began and the Noos scandal fully burst into the open in 2011.

Urdangarin, Torres and others were accused of syphoning off money paid by regional governments to the institute for staging sporting events and conferences.

Urdangarin denied any wrongdoing, but the scandal led to his spectacular fall from grace.

It enraged ordinary Spaniards who were suffering hardship during an economic crisis.

The royal family excluded Urdangarin from its functions.

The scandal contributed to the emotional abdication of King Juan Carlos in 2014 to make way for his son Felipe.

– Stripped of title –

King Felipe VI has distanced himself from the couple, and in 2015 he stripped them of their titles of Duke and Duchess of Palma.

Madrid’s waxwork museum moved Urdangarin’s statue from its usual location with the rest of the Spanish royals to the sports hall.

So what happened?

“Some say that Inaki didn’t want to be like the former husband of Princess Elena (Cristina’s older sister), placed on company boards, but wanted to earn lots of money, be successful and prove to the royal family that he was a good guy,” says royal affairs journalist Ana Romero.

Urdangarin will be spending the next few years as an inmate of a prison near Brieva, 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Madrid, a small facility for up to 162 prisoners that is mainly used for women. 

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