picture of a track and field starting line

Nicolas Butylin follows up on his recent article analysing democratic backsliding in Belarus to cover what has been happening with Belarusian track and field athlete Kristina Tsimanouskaya. He argues that the near-abduction of the athlete at the Tokyo Olympics is a symptom President Lukashenka’s broader efforts to forcibly quell all criticism of him and the regime. 

Raman Pratasevic, Vitold Ashourok, Kristina Tsimanouskaya, and Vitali Shyshou made global news over the past months. The international community is shocked about the fates of these people, while for Belarusians of any kind a question emerges: how safe are we even outside of Belarus? A few years ago, stories from the Eastern European country did not make global headlines, but things have changed not last since the fraudulent presidential elections of August 2020. Since, journalists have covered the unpredictable dictator, Lukashenka, massive repressions, harsh treatment of political opponents, the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane, and now the Olympics.

The political nature of sports in Belarus is not a secret. For example, one can look at Lukashenka’s final speech to the athletes before leaving for the Olympics. The speech made it clear that, in Belarus, sport and politics are closely linked and that sport is also seen as a model of the country’s own policy for the purpose of its justification at home and abroad. The Olympic team’s raison d’être is winning medals, otherwise its budget would have to be invested in other areas. Another point to mention is the structure of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee (NOC), whose chairman is Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s eldest son. Hence, the story that most recently made headlines is very reminiscent of the Cold War and the 20th century.

The political nature of sports in Belarus is not a secret.

During the Olympics in Tokyo, the Belarusian Olympic athlete Kristina Tsimanouskaya complained about her own coaching team via her social media channels. She criticized that she was supposed to take part in the relay competition (4x400m), although that is not her main discipline. In addition, the athlete mentioned that the coaching team and sports officials did a bad job in dealing with the provision of doping tests. Subsequently the Olympic dream of other female athletes, who were disqualified for a failure to comply with anti-doping provisions, was gone, while Tsimanouskaya was going to take over their starting positions.

The criticism quickly reached the public, as well as the Belarusian state television channel ONT that harshly blamed Tsimanouskaya for her social media activities towards the coaches. Considering the ongoing and unprecedented crackdown on NGOs and non-state activists in Belarus, you could have guessed what would happen next: the athlete was expelled from the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for the Games in Tokyo, which was justified with her “emotional and psychological” condition. Meanwhile, Tsimanouskaya denies that a doctor ever examined her in the past few days. Rather, the story speaks of coercion, in which a Belarusian sports official and the track and field coach suggest Tsimanouskaya’s return to Belarus in a threatening manner – and on command “from above”. The fact that the “from above” does not mean the NOC or the Ministry of Sports, but an individual who apparently is all-powerful in Belarus illustrates the general situation in the country regarding criticism of state bodies.

In response to the demand “from above”, Tsimanouskaya was forcibly brought to the Tokyo airport on 1 August 2021. There, she immediately sought help and went to the Japanese police to avoid the forced return to Belarus. The public also played an important role in the dissemination of the events, which once again pushed sports into the background of this year’s Olympics. The authorities of several European foreign ministries and embassies quickly showed solidarity and offered Tsimanouskaya asylum, such as the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister, or offers for a humanitarian visa from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Currently, the athlete is safe in Tokyo and is going to fly to Warsaw in the next couple days. One day later, her husband also fled to Ukraine to escape the risk of collective punishment, which is unfortunately day-to-day business in Belarus.

The athletes of the Belarusian team are likely to be under even greater pressure from now on.

While Belarus is again in the headlines of the world’s major media outlets, the case is also causing great unrest among Belarusian athletes. Lukashenka already said that if athletes did not win medals, they should better not come back to Belarus. Words, which are known only from the darkest totalitarian systems. The athletes of the Belarusian team are likely to be under even greater pressure from now on. For example, Tsimanouskaya was a very apolitical athlete, waving the green-red state flag at the opening ceremony and not supporting the democracy movement. Yet, as you can see, even the mildest form of criticism is not accepted and persecuted “from above.”

The situation around Tsimanouskaya and the consequences of her attempted forced return will have their chapter in Olympic history. Tsimanouskaya is by far not the only Belarusian athlete who has to contend with reprisals from state authorities. Since the beginning of the protests in Belarus last year, athletes have joined forces and founded the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), of which the swimmer Herasimiena is probably one of the most famous members. While the exile organisation brings together at least 1,200 athletes, around 95 of them have already been subjected to reprisals in the form of imprisonment, torture and discrimination. Therefore, the EU member states should widen up their sports-specific capacities and take into account not only a humanitarian visa but also supporting the career paths of the athletes. A participation e.g., in the Refugee Olympic Team would be an outstanding story for the athletes who are going through difficult times.

Cover photo by Tirza van Dijk (Unsplash), Unsplash licence 

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    Nicolas Butylin, 26, is finishing his Master in Eastern European Studies in Berlin and would like to maintain the focus on Belarus in the second year after the 2020 elections. While he is drawn more to Karelia than to Australia, and more to Vilnius than to Barcelona, Belarus will probably remain in the centre of his professional career.

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