PtG Article 09.12.2021

Playing with dictators behind closed doors: Athletes pay the price

In 2020, Belarusian athletes forced the IOC to suspend the head of the Belarusian NOC, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, but the regime of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ still controls Belarusian sport, and athletes are still detained and fined for expressing their political views without help from the IOC.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is being heavily criticised for its ‘quiet diplomacy’ in the Chinese Peng Shuai affair. But the IOC’s handling of the former Olympic tennis player’s sexual assault allegation against China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli is far from the only example of Olympic leaders playing with dictators behind closed doors.

In October 2020, not even the dark and raining autumn clouds over Lausanne could stop a group of Belarusian protesters from marching through the Olympic capital with banners declaring that “Champions don’t play with dictators!”

At the end of the march, a small group of Belarusian athletes delivered a letter to the IOC headquarters in which their message was further highlighted: “We are calling on the IOC to suspend the National Olympic Committee of Belarus and any funding to it for as long as the breach of the Olympic Charter in Belarus continues.”

The letter referred to months of violent riot police crackdowns and arrests of thousands of Belarusians, including many athletes, who opposed the re-election of Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko in August 2020. The re-election of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ who has been in power in the former Soviet republic since 1994 resulted in the largest political mass demonstrations in the country’s history.

Being the head of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) in Belarus for 23 years, Lukashenko is also the most extreme example of the IOC’s willingness to play with dictators who use Olympic sport as a political tool to stay in power. That is why the Belarusian athletes turned to the IOC for help. So far though, the IOC has not made a clear choice between playing with the Belarusian dictator or playing with the Belarusian athletes.

Nothing has changed for Belarusian athletes

Since the protest march in Lausanne, several Belarusian athletes have been arrested and fired from their national teams and clubs. The athletes are still urging the IOC to put an end to the Lukashenko regime’s control over the NOC in Belarus. And recently, a report from the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) targeted the structure of world football by calling on the European football confederation UEFA to stop Lukashenko’s political control over the Belarusian Football Federation.   

“I think the IOC is very careful in its decision. That can be understood with such a complex and clumsy structure,” Belarusian swimmer Aleksandra Herasimenia, a triple Olympic medal winner and founder of the BSSF, says to Play the Game.

But despite the IOC promises of help, the political repression and discrimination against athletes who express their civic position against Lukashenko’s regime have only persisted, Herasimenia explains:

“Nothing has changed dramatically for Belarusian athletes. Of course, under the close attention of the IOC, some athletes were offered to return to their jobs, but pressure, threats, and dismissals still continue.”

The latest example of the Lukashenko regime’s ongoing repression of Belarusian athletes came in November 2021 when Olympic freestyle skier Aliaksandra Ramanouskaya was detained and fined for having signed a letter of protest along with more than 2000 athletes, coaches, and sport administrators against the disputed 2020 re-election of Lukashenko.

Among the Belarusian athletes who have paid a high price for the IOC’s strategy of playing with dictators is Yelena Leuchanka. After having taken part in public demonstrations against Lukashenko in 2020, the Olympian basketball player and former WNBA star was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

“Maybe it is about time for the IOC to get involved now. At the end of the day, without the athletes there would be no Olympics, there would be no sport,” Leuchanka told Play the Game after her release from prison in October 2020.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the global Olympic movement did not react until December 2020, when the IOC Executive Board decided to take provisional measures against the Belarusian NOC.

Based on BSSF reports and its own investigation, the IOC then concluded that it appeared the NOC leadership had not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination within the NOC, their member sports federations or the sports movement. The IOC also noted that the provisional measures would be applicable until further notice or until such time as a new NOC Executive Board was elected in February 2021 by the NOC General Assembly.

The IOC decided to exclude all elected members of the Executive Board from all IOC events and activities, including NOC president Aleksander Lukashenko, his son Viktor Lukashenko who was then the NOC vice president, and Dmitry Baskov, a Belarusian ice hockey president and a strong supporter of the Lukashenko regime. Baskov is also suspected of being involved in an incident on the Square of Changes in Minsk that led to the death of the Belarusian citizen Roman Bondarenko.

IOC: Great disappointment

The IOC also decided to suspend all financial payments to the NOC, and to suspend all discussions with the NOC regarding the hosting of future IOC events. But in February 2021, the Belarusian NOC General Assembly elected Viktor Lukashenko as the new NOC president and re-elected Dmitry Baskov as a member of the Executive Board.

This move by the Belarusian NOC made the IOC Executive Board express great disappointment with the NOC at its meeting in March 2021. But so far, the disappointment has not resulted in further IOC actions against the Belarusian NOC even though the NOC is clearly controlled by family members and other loyal supporters of Lukashenko.

The lack of action from the IOC was highlighted in September 2021, when a five-year suspension of Baskov for political discrimination of Belarusian athletes in opposition to Lukashenko was decided by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), not by the IOC.

“I consider the IIHF suspension of Baskov for five years to be a rather mild sentence,” Herasimenia says.

“But it can also be considered our small victory. All perpetrators must be punished. I think that by the time Baskov’s suspension ends, he will hardly be able to work in the Belarusian sports environment. With each such suspension imposed by sanctions, many supporters of the regime will think about whether everything is really as they are told?”

And the founder of the BSSF is not impressed by the conduct of the IOC in the recent case of the Belarusian NOC’s alleged attempt to kidnap the Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya either.

Athletics Integrity Unit: An ongoing investigation

In August 2021 during the Olympic Games in Tokoy, Tsimanouskaya said that two Belarusian coaches had taken her to the airport against her will and ordered her to return home to Belarus after a dispute over a critique of the regime which the Belarusian NOC claimed was caused by her mental and emotional state.

While the Olympic athlete was granted a humanitarian visa by Poland, the IOC launched an investigation into the Belarusian NOC’s involvement in the case. But after the Games, the IOC handed the investigation over to the independent Athletics Integrity Unit set up by World Athletics for further investigation of the case that by then was just an ‘incident’ to the IOC.

“Krystsina’s case perfectly demonstrates the whole picture of the regime’s attitude towards athletes in Belarus. You can stand aside from the events taking place in the country, you can decide to not express your position, but one way or another it will still affect you,” Herasimenia says.

Play the Game has asked both the IOC and the Athletics Integrity Unit to clarify when the Belarusian athletes can expect a decision in relation to the Belarusian NOC. Both organisations have replied that the investigation is ongoing and that the result will be published when the investigation is finished.

But according to Herasimenia, the BSSF have sent all the necessary documents to the IOC:

“At the moment we are waiting for the IOC decision in relation to the Belarusian NOC. Given that despite the sanctions imposed on the Belarusian NOC, repression and discrimination against athletes who have expressed their civic position have still persisted, I hope the IOC will impose tougher sanctions up to the exclusion of the NOC from IOC membership.”

Over the past year, more than 125 sport people in Belarus have applied to the BSSF for help in cases of discrimination and dismissals for political reasons.

“Not only athletes but also coaches, journalists, sports specialists. 98 have been arrested. Of these, 8 are political prisoners, and 36 professional athletes and coaches were dismissed from national teams,” Herasimenia says. She believes the Olympic crisis in Belarus will prevent many Belarusian athletes from passing the upcoming certifications of national teams for the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing in February 2021.

“And not even because they have their own civic position but simply because there is a crisis in the country and there is no money. They will pay only those who have medals or those who openly show their loyalty to the regime.”

Global Athlete: Athletes are secondary to the IOC

To Rob Koehler, Director General of Global Athlete, the IOC has neglected its duty of care by not fully suspending the Belarusian NOC:

“Athletes have been unlawfully incarcerated, removed from jobs, fined, intimidated and kidnapped; yet the IOC continues to allow the Belarus NOC to retain its good standing and attend the Games. The IOC must immediately suspend the NOC and allocate resources to help these athletes compete safely as neutral athletes,” Koehler says to Play the Game.

“For a year, Belarusian athletes and the BSSF have been pleading with the IOC to fully suspend their own Belarus NOC. The IOC’s inaction has sent a clear message to athletes worldwide that their health and safety are secondary to the implementation of the Games and the preservation of a ‘global unity’ marketing strategy.”

But so far, not even the economically most powerful country in the Olympic movement has been able to change the conduct of the IOC. In August, US President Biden signed an Executive Order imposing new sanctions against the Belarusian NOC to punish Lukashenko for his ongoing assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people, the order notes.

The US Department of the Treasury then issued its largest round of sanctions to date against Belarusian individuals and entities, including the Belarusian NOC for its failure to protect Belarusian athletes from political discrimination and repression.

According to the presidential order, the NOC allegedly serves as a tool for Lukashenko and his inner circle to launder funds and evade sanctions. The US sanctions means that Americans and US-based companies are forbidden from entering any transactions with the Belarusian NOC.

Belarus: Unreasonable and ridiculous US sanctions

In a commentary on the US sanctions, the Belarusian NOC found the sanctions ‘absolutely unreasonable’ and noted that the US decision causes only ‘confusion and empathy’:

“Sanctions against a non-profit organisation testify to a lack of an attempt to understand the international structure of sport management. They violate the principle ‘sport outside politics’ and show the desire to limit opportunities for our citizens to engage in sports and develop high-performance sports in general,” the NOC stated.

“It is puzzling that while positioning itself as a guarantor and even a standard for observing the rule of law, ensuring, and defending all kinds of democratic rights, freedoms, and aspirations, the US, for its part, does not bother at all to observe those very rights and freedoms.”

According to the Belarusian NOC, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, and other basic legal principles were pushed into the background by the US for political reasons:

“We would be very grateful for the presentation by our American ‘partners’ of evidence of the facts of corruption within the NOC Belarus, money laundering, and circumvention of sanctions cited in the justification for the sanctions. After all, they do not take into account the fact that NOC Belarus undergoes a thorough external audit by the IOC without any faults found. Moreover, such an approach to a sports organization recognized by the IOC as a full-fledged subject of the Olympic Movement, whose activities are regulated primarily by the Olympic Charter, without the participation of the IOC itself looks absolutely ridiculous,” the commentary from the NOC concluded.

But according to the Belarusian athletes, the Belarusian NOC is not the only sport entity in Belarus that is controlled by the Lukashenko regime.

BSSF: Violations of FIFA and UEFA regulations

In October 2021, the BSSF released a report on alleged violations of FIFA and UEFA integrity regulations committed by the Belarusian Football Federation (BFF). According to the report, the procedure for electing leadership of sports federations in Belarus exists only on paper. Most sport leaders are elected based on their loyalty to the authorities and Belarusian football is no exception.

“Currently, the President of the Belarusian Futsal Federation is Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Khomenko, while the Belarusian Beach Soccer Federation is headed by the former officer of the Presidential Security Service Mikhail Botnikov,” the report says and points to a connection between the Belarusian security forces and the Ministry of Sports, the Belarusian NOC, the BFF, and some of the Belarusian sports clubs.

“The Minister of Sports Sergei Kovalchuk is from the Presidential Security Service; the NOC President Viktor Lukashenko is National Security Advisor and supervisor of the Belarusian security forces; the BFF President Vladimir Bazanov is a retired military man, and the BFF Vice President Mikhail Botnikov is from the Presidential Security Service.”

According to the BSSF report, the Belarusian sports ministry threatened to stop state funding to football clubs whose players did not sign pro-government letters.

The report offers examples of how state controlled Belarusian football clubs such as FC Dynamo Brest, FC Gomel, and FC Energetik-BSU have used football as propaganda for the Lukashenko regime, including football children wearing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Lukashenko is our president’ on the eve of the presidential election in Belarus.

And the report also claims that the Belarusian state controls the refereeing process in Belarusian football by eliminating the independence of the refereeing corps and by turning a blind eye to a systematic problem of match fixing in Belarusian football.

“The BFF violates its own statutes, as well as the FIFA Statutes, the Referee Convention and other documents. The BFF actions damage the image of Belarusian football both domestically and internationally. UEFA was informed of the above violations but did not react. What is going on in Belarusian football is a systematic and flagrant violation of the principle of independence and autonomy of a sports organisation,” the BSSF report concludes.

Whether the IOC, FIFA, and UEFA will react on the athlete reports coming out of Belarus remains to be seen. So far, the IOC President Thomas Bach has viewed the Belarusian crisis as a single case that is seriously affecting the reputation of the Olympic Movement. But to the Belarusian athletes, the IOC’s long history of playing with dictators represents a general problem with the structure of international sports governance that needs to be reformed.

The IOC’s ‘slow diplomacy’ in Belarus and ‘quiet diplomacy’ in China seem to confirm the Belarusian athletes’ point of view.

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