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2 August 2021

How Belarus’s authoritarian creep reached the Olympics

An alleged attempt to forcibly repatriate the Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya suggests sport is still far from free of politics.

By Ido Vock

The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, conceived of his philosophy of “Olympism” as being above politics. Yet in truth, politics has always intruded upon the Olympic Games. Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 competition. A US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, led dozens of countries to pull out. The Soviets responded in 1984 with an Eastern Bloc counter-boycott in Los Angeles.

This year, politics is once again encroaching on Olympic sport after Krystina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian runner, accused her country’s Olympic Committee (BOC) of attempting to forcibly repatriate her to Belarus on 1 August. The athlete had earlier criticised BOC officials for allegedly entering her into the 400-metre relay when she had trained for the 200 metre sprint. A number of Belarusian competitors for the relay had been disqualified for failing to provide the requisite number of anti-doping tests, leading the BOC officials to demand Timanovskaya step in to replace one.

In Tokyo Airport, Timanovskaya posted videos online accusing the BOC of attempting to fly her to Belarus without her consent and appealing to the International Olympic Committee for help. Japanese police arrived and escorted the sprinter out of the airport. On 2 August, she was seen entering the Polish embassy in Tokyo and the Polish foreign ministry later announced that she had been granted a humanitarian visa.

An audio recording allegedly capturing a conversation between Timanovskaya and two BOC officials, published by the anonymous Telegram channel “Nick and Mike”, may shed some light on events. The recording appears to show two Belarusian sports officials – head coach of the national team Yuri Moisevich and Belarusian Track and Field Training Center deputy director Artur Shumak – attempt to persuade Timanovskaya to return to Belarus as a way to save their own skins after her public criticism of the BOC:

“One of [the regime’s] tin soldiers will show up and say, ‘Sir, yes, sir! Awaiting orders!’ And he’ll purge the national team so bad that there’ll be nothing left of us,” Moisevich is allegedly recorded to have said. 

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Indeed, Timanovskaya herself believes that the order to repatriate her came from the very top. “This issue is no longer at the level of the [track-and-field] sporting federation, nor of the sports ministry, but even further up,” she told the website Tribuna.

There are indications that the Olympics are personal for Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Before the Games, Lukashenko explicitly linked sporting success to his own political fortunes in an address to Belarusian athletes bound for Tokyo. “Your successes should become a response … to those states that are strangling or trying to strangle us with sanctions,” he told the sportspeople, a reference to EU measures imposed on his regime.

Lukashenko has subsequently expressed exasperation at his country’s low medal haul. (Belarusian athletes have so far taken two medals, placing them in 47th place in the national rankings.) At a cabinet meeting on 29 July, the president complained that the Belarusian athletes were failing to win enough medals to justify their state funding: “The country wants to see medals, and they are not delivering.”

That the Belarusian Olympians have so far failed to stand on the podium at more than two events undermines Lukashenko’s attempt to legitimise his rule with sporting prowess, Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, told me. He added that Lukashenko’s narrative is rooted in his mindset, formed under Soviet communism: “In the Soviet Union, enormous resources were invested in sport in order to garner prestige for the system. Sporting success was seen as a reflection of the success of the system.”

Timanovskaya reportedly expressed fear for the retaliation that her family – who are still in Belarus – might face from the authorities if she defected. Using athletes’ relatives as hostages against athletes defecting while competing abroad puts Belarus on a par with only a few other rogue states, notably North Korea, Gould-Davies said.

The spate of norm-defying actions taken by the Belarusian regime this year, from the May kidnapping of Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist, to the apparent sponsoring of illegal migration into the EU, indicates that Lukashenko, not content with running “Europe’s last dictatorship”, is turning Belarus into something arguably worse – a pariah state.

[See also: Is Belarus using migrants to wage “hybrid warfare” on the EU?]