When Belarusian Olympic officials came to Kristina Timanovskaya’s room after the sprinter had publicly complained about her coaches, the head of the national team made it clear that she had an order to return home – and it came from above.
Because sport, like much in Belarus, is a family business. This family belongs to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has ruled the Eastern European country with authoritarian power for 27 years.
Ms. Timanovskaya refused and fell into an Olympic scandal reminiscent of the Cold War. On Wednesday she arrived in Poland, which had offered her and her husband political asylum.
However, their situation has shed light on an anachronistic dictatorship in which no area of life can escape politics and the ruling family is increasingly ruthless against any hint of dissent.
Without this drama, few people interested in the Olympics would have paid much attention to Belarus, which, unlike the old Soviet Union to which it once belonged, is hardly a gold medal powerhouse. But the litter has drawn global attention to one more of the many ways the Lukashenko family wields their power: sport.
“Sport is a propaganda tool for Lukashenko, just as it is for any dictator in any totalitarian system,” said Aleksandr Opeikin, the executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, an anti-government group.
“Lukashenko has always considered the athletes ‘awards and the athletes’ medals at the Olympic Games to be his own.”
But if the use of sport as a propaganda tool has a long history, so too do the embarrassing defectors who have pierced the aura of invincibility carefully nurtured by authoritarian governments.
Dozens of Hungarian athletes refused to return to Australia when they arrived in Australia for the 1956 Olympics and learned how the Soviets had invaded their country to crush a mass uprising against communism. At least four Romanians and one Russian defected during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, along with dozens of others in the 1970s.
Upon arriving in Tokyo, Ms. Timanovskaya took to Instagram to criticize her country’s Olympic delegation for including her in a season at the last minute without informing her.
But if Lukashenko took the criticism personally, it is because his family’s control over the Belarusian sports complex is absolute, he remembers Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who appointed his son Uday to head their Olympic Committee in 1984.
While Saddam had Uday, Mr. Lukashenko has Viktor, his 45 year old son who looks like a younger version of his father. As an avid motorcyclist, you can often see him in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, at the head of Harley-Davidson motorcycle parades where he meets security officials and important government figures.
Viktor took over the helm of the Belarusian Olympic Committee in February after being headed by his father for 27 years. Human rights activists have accused father and son of being directly involved in the treatment of Ms. Timanovskaya in Tokyo.
Mr Opeikin said that if Ms. Timanovskaya had returned to Belarus, she would likely have been punished.
“I can argue that there is a very high probability that she would be jailed, tortured, slept and not given food or water,” he said in a telephone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where he fled after last year’s controversial election.
No presidential election in Belarus has been judged free and fair by international observers since 1995. But after last August’s elections, 200,000 protesters gathered in Minsk to protest an allegedly rigged vote, and Lukashenko went straight down. 35,000 people have been arrested since then. Athletes were not spared.
In August 2020, more than 1,000 athletes, including Olympic champions, signed an open letter calling for new elections and an end to the torture and ill-treatment of peaceful protesters. (Mrs. Timanovskaya was not one of them.)
“Sixty of these signatories have been dismissed from the national team, have lost their funding, have been forced to resign or have been physically abused,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, executive director of Amnesty International Ukraine, which documents the attacks by the Lukashenko government against athletes.
Some of them were Olympic champions, like Aleksandra Gerasimena, a swimmer who won a bronze medal in 2016. Today she is the director of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Fund (BSSF), an organization founded last August to support athletes punished by the regime.
To date, Ms. Pokalchuk said, 95 athletes have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests, seven have been charged with political offenses and 124 have suffered other forms of repression.
“These decisions, which damage the country’s image, such as the exclusion of Timanovskaya from the Olympic Games, cannot be made without Lukashenko’s knowledge and consent,” said Pokalchuk. “He tries to keep an eye on everything that can at least slightly reduce his position.”
Against this background, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund appealed to the International Olympic Committee, which decided in November to exclude Mr. Lukashenko, his son Viktor and Dmitri Baskov, another board member, from participating in Olympic events. It also suspended funding for the National Olympic Committee of Belarus and paid scholarships directly to the athletes themselves.
A number of sports competitions were subsequently postponed or relocated from Belarus, although many organizers cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason and not political repression. But the government saw critics who needed to be silenced.
In April, the Belarusian authorities accused Ms. Gerasimenya and Mr. Opeikin of “deliberately disseminating false information” and accused them of “appealing to foreign states and international organizations to take measures that harm the national security of the Republic of Belarus”.
The charges of damaging the “prestige of the country in the international and political arena” can be punished with a possible sentence of five years in prison.
The crackdown on athletes has consequences for Belarusian sport. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Belarusian athletes took home one gold, four silver and four bronze medals. Some were won by athletes who are now in exile. This year Belarus won only one gold medal and one bronze medal.
“This shows that the sports system in Belarus is no longer working,” said Opeikin. “That’s because because of their criticism of Lukashenko, professionals have either left the country or been fired from their posts, and now there are a multitude of laypeople in the sport.”
Mr Opeikin said the international scandal surrounding Ms. Timanovskaya – and the team’s poor results – likely scared the country’s Olympic officials, who may fear reprisals.
“Since the resources are not being spent on developing the sport, but simply supporting loyal athletes and maintaining that showcase, the system is now crumbling that way,” said Opeikin. “That’s why it happened, and now the whole world has found out about it.”
In a recording of her conversation with Ms. Timanovskaya, both the national team head coach Yuri Moisevich and the Belarusian Republican Athletics Training Center’s deputy director Artur Shumak appeared unsettled by a possible reaction from above.
You can hear Mr Moisevich trying to pressure Ms. Timanovskaya to return home, saying that he is not afraid for himself, “but for the team and the whole situation here”.
“I’m in my 60s – I’m not scared anymore, but one of those tin soldiers will show up and say, ‘Sir, yes, sir! Waiting for orders! ‘ And he’s going to clean the national team so there’s nothing left of us. Then you will go down in history – it is said that it all began with Timanovskaya. She made all this mess, and then they changed leadership to fix things. “
President Lukashenko appeared to blame the coaches on a TV appearance recently.
“That’s anger, I’m talking about sports because we’re all sitting and watching the championship,” he said. “Some countries that I won’t name, three to five times smaller than ours, have gold medals. And we’re all happy that we made it to the final … But here we have to clarify that with the coaches. The first mistake is the trainer. “
Mr Opeikin wondered aloud whether the team’s leadership would also decide not to return to Belarus after the Tokyo games.
“I know that the Belarusian delegation is now also very scared and I do not rule out that they will refuse to fly to Belarus at the end of the games,” he said. “They understand what could happen to them, that they might be fired or interrogated in jail. You no longer rule it out. “