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“Sport is Part of Politics”

Greta Scott

Posted on August 8, 2021 20:34

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In many ways, Belarus resembles a 20th century-style dictatorship. This is a country where the KGB is still called the KGB, where streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels, and a statue of Lenin dominates a square in Minsk. The way Belarus views sport and athletes is no exception.

Belarus hit the news in August last year after protests erupted in response to electoral fraud, leaving “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko, in power. Thanks to this year’s Olympics, the role of athletes in fighting against Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime has been put under the spotlight.

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation was formed in August 2020 after more than 250 athletes signed an open letter condemning electoral fraud in last year’s elections. The number of signatories is now around 2,000, one of whom is Olympic swimmer Aleksandra Herasimenia. In an interview, she stated, “Sport is part of politics. It has always been part of politics.”

Because of their role in the protests, 95 athletes have been imprisoned and 35 have been expelled from the Belarusian national team. A court has also banned a popular sports website amid the intensifying crackdown of the media, labelling it as “extremist.”

Athletes are particularly vulnerable because sport is intrinsically political in Belarus. Before his son, Lukashenko himself headed the National Olympic Committee and is also known to be an amateur hockey player. Lukashenko sees sporting success as a direct reflection of the country’s prestige and his regime’s legitimacy; he has used sport as an instrument of propaganda and consequently has been accused of “sportwashing” his reputation. Addressing athletes before this year’s Olympics, Lukashenko declared, “Your successes should become a response … to those states that are strangling or trying to strangle us with sanctions.” He has since expressed his frustration at Belarus’ poor medal haul (totaling seven medals). This is not dissimilar to the way 20th century dictators viewed sport: Mussolini, for example, saw sport as a way to ensure discipline and commitment.

It is obvious that sport in Belarus has inherited many Soviet traditions, including the employment of athletes by State agencies, which makes athletes dependent on the State in order to secure their loyalty. Moreover, Belarus has seen many Cold War-style athlete defections. Most recently, Kristina Timanovskaya has fled to Poland on a humanitarian visa after her removal from the national Olympic team for criticizing her coaches. Timanovskaya faced backlash from the State media, saying she lacked “team spirit” for complaining that her coaches had entered her into the 4x400m relay race at short notice. According to the Belarusian State, Timanovskaya was removed from the team because of her emotional condition — something the athlete herself has denied. Timanovskaya said two coaches entered her room and told her to pack her bags immediately, forcibly taking her to the airport to send her back to Belarus. Timanovskaya asked the International Olympic Committee for help and refused orders to return. This attempt to drag her back was probably motivated by the fact that Lukashenko sees the Olympics as an opportunity to gain prestige, not to cause embarrassment.

All this goes to show that Lukashenko’s regime knows no bounds. Timanovskaya has said that she wants to return to Belarus, but that it is too dangerous presently. History, and indeed current events, dictate that she is right.

Greta Scott

Posted on August 8, 2021 20:34

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Source: Upworthy

Kristina Timanovskaya said team officials had tried to remove her from Japan after she criticized Belarus's athletics federation.

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