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

Published on 12/06/2018

A tall and dapper former handball player with two Olympic medals to his name, Inaki Urdangarin went from "ideal son-in-law" to the black sheep of Spain's royal family when he landed in court in a corruption case.

The 50-year-old, married to King Felipe VI’s sister, Princess Cristina, was sentenced on Tuesday on appeal to five years and 10 months in jail for embezzling millions of euros of public funds 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, replaced by a morose-looking Urdangarin walking his dog in Geneva where he, Cristina and their four children now live in exile, a supermarket bag tucked under his arm.

– 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.

Left-wing daily El Pais dubbed him “the perfect boy”.

“Inaki is a good, good, very good man,” his mother-in-law, Queen Sofia, was quoted as saying in 2008 by a journalist specialising in Spanish royal affairs, Pilar Urbano.

“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,” she said.

The praise betrayed no hint of the scandal that was brewing and erupted in 2011, 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 and he was bestowed the title of Duke of Palma.

After winning bronze medals with Spain’s handball team at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, 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… for better and for worse.

– Washington move –

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

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 — soon dissipated in Spain.

Then in 2009, as the scandal was simmering in the background, Urdangarin and his family moved to Washington at the demand of his father-in-law, King Juan Carlos, where he worked for Spain’s telecoms giant Telefonica.

But in 2011, the Noos case burst into the open with Urdangarin, Torres and others suspected of siphoning off money paid by regional governments to the institute for staging sporting events and conferences.

Urdangarin denies any wrongdoing, but the scandal led to a spectacular fall from grace and even precipitated the emotional abdication of King Juan Carlos in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe.

– Stripped of title –

Since then, King Felipe VI has sought to distance himself from his sister Cristina and Urdangarin, and in 2015 he stripped them of their titles of Duke and Duchess of Palma.

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

But why did the man who “had it all” allegedly get involved in fraud.

“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 now go to jail unless he makes a successful final appeal to the Constitutional Court — a possibility regarded as unlikely.

If he did not go to jail “the reaction would be very negative for the crown,” said Romero.

“People would say he was not going to prison because he is the king’s brother-in-law,” she added.