When Belarusian Olympic officials came to Christina Timanovskaya’s room after the sprinter publicly complained about the coach, the national team leader revealed that she had ordered her to go home — and It came from above.
That’s because, like many other parts of Belarus, sports are a family-owned business. The family belongs to President Alexander G. Lukashenko, who has held authoritarian power in Eastern European countries for 27 years.
Timanovskaya refused in an Olympic scandal reminiscent of the Cold War and went into exile. On Wednesday, she arrived in Poland, where she and her husband offered political asylum.
But her situation sheds light on an anachronistic dictatorship in which the realm of life cannot avoid politics, and the ruling family is increasingly ruthlessly cracking down on the whims of dissent.
Without the drama, few would be interested in the Olympics in Belarus, where unlike the former Soviet Union, where they once belonged, they rarely win gold medals. However, asylum has attracted worldwide attention to sports, which is yet another of the many ways the Lukashenko family exercises their power.
“For Lucashenko, sports are a promotional tool, as are the dictators of any totalitarian system,” said Alexander Lukashenko, secretary-general of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the government. rice field.
“Lukashenko has always recognized the athlete’s medal, the athlete’s medal at the Olympic Games, as his medal.”
But if you have a long history of using sports as a propaganda tool, so is the embarrassing asylum that pierced the invincible aura carefully cultivated by authoritarian governments.
Upon arriving in Australia for the 1956 Olympics, dozens of Hungarian athletes refused to return and learned how the Soviets invaded their country to quell the massive rebellion against communism. .. At least four Romanians and one Russian were exiled at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, and by the 1970s dozens had been exiled.
After arriving in Tokyo, Timanovskaya went to Instagram and criticized her country’s Olympic delegation, who added her to the relay at the last minute without notifying her.
However, Lukashenko personally criticized Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who appointed his son Uday as chairman of the Olympic Commission in 1984, and that family control over Belarus’ sports facilities was absolute. Because it is a target.
Saddam had Uday, but Lukashenko has a 45-year-old son, Victor. He looks like a younger version of his father. An enthusiastic motorcyclist, he often leads the Harley-Davidson motorcycle parade in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. There he works with government security officials and key figures.
Victor commanded the Belarusian Olympic Committee in February after his father had been running for 27 years. Human rights activists have accused the father and son of being directly involved in the treatment of Mr. Timanovskaya in Tokyo.
Opeikin said that if Timanovskaya returned to Belarus, he would probably be punished.
In a telephone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, “it can be argued that she is very likely to be sent to prison, tortured, deprived of sleep, and given no food or water,” he later said. I ran away. Last year’s contested elections.
The presidential vote in Belarus has not been judged free and fair by international observers since 1995. However, after the elections in August last year, 200,000 protesters gathered in Minsk to protest the fraudulent vote, and Lukashenko cracked down. Since then, 35,000 people have been arrested. The athlete did not spare.
In August 2020, more than 1,000 athletes, including Olympic medalists, signed an open letter calling for a new election and the end of torture and ill-treatment of peaceful protesters. (Mr. Timanovskaya was not one of them.)
Oksana Pokarchuk, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ukraine, who has documented Lukashenko’s government abuse of athletes, said: ..
There were also Olympic medalists, like swimmer Alexandragera Simena, who won the bronze medal in 2016. She is currently the director of the Belarus Sports Solidarity Fund (BSSF), an organization founded last August to support athletes punished by the administration.
To date, Pokarchuk said 95 athletes were detained for participating in peaceful protests, 7 were charged with political crimes, and 124 suffered from other forms of crackdown. ..
“These decisions that affect the image of the country, such as the exclusion of Timanovskaya from the Olympics, cannot be made without the knowledge and approval of Lukashenko,” said Pokarchuk. “He’s trying to keep an eye out for anything that could at least slightly lower his position.”
With this in mind, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund has appealed to the International Olympic Committee. In November, the International Olympic Committee decided to ban Lukashenko, his son Victor, and another member of the board, Dmitri Baskov, from attending the Olympic event. It also stopped funding the National Olympic Committee in Belarus and paid scholarships directly to the athletes themselves.
Many organizers cited the Covid-19 pandemic rather than political crackdown as the reason, but many athletics have since been postponed or relocated from Belarus. But the government saw critics who needed to be silent.
In April, Belarusian officials described Gerasimenia and Opeikin as “intentionally disseminating false information” and “foreign states and internationals to take action aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus. I appealed to the institution. “
Accusations involving damage to the country’s “prestige in the international and political arena” carry the possibility of imprisonment for five years.
The crackdown on athletes has influenced Belarusian sports. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, Belarusian athletes brought back one gold medal, four silver medals and four bronze medals. Some athletes who are currently in exile have won. This year, Belarus has won only one gold medal and one bronze medal.
“This proves the fact that the Belarusian sports system is no longer functioning,” said Opeikin. “This is because experts have left the country or were fired from their posts because of criticism of Lukashenko, and there are now so many non-experts in sports.”
Opeikin said the international scandal surrounding Timanovskaya and the poor performance of the team could have scared Olympic officials in countries that could fear retaliation.
“Resources aren’t spent on the development of the sport, but simply on the support of loyal athletes, and because of the preservation of this showcase, the system is now collapsing like this,” Opeikin said. rice field. “That’s why it happened, and now the whole world knows about it.”
In the recording of the conversation with Timanovskaya, head coach Yuri Moisevic of the national team and Arthur Schmack, deputy director of the Republican Athletics Center in Belarus, are nervous about the possibility of a reaction from above. It was like.
You can hear Moisevic saying he is not afraid of himself “for the team and the whole situation here” when trying to pressure Timanovskaya to go home.
“I’m in my 60s. I’m not scared anymore, but one of these tin soldiers appeared and said,” Sir, yes, sir! Waiting for an order! “And he drives away the national team so badly that we Will leave nothing behind. Then you will go down in history — they will say it all …