An Olympian makes a cry for help and asks for protection from her home country Belarus. The fears are well founded: athletes who were first celebrated by Lukashenko’s regime are now threatened with imprisonment.
Actually, a pleasant 18 degrees were reported for September 30th, but basketball player Alena Leutschanka felt the cold of the Belarusian regime on that day. Shortly before leaving for Greece, the national player was arrested at the airport in Minsk.
Official reason: for attending an unauthorized rally. “It seems that they waited until the last possible moment – it was a show arrest,” the athlete told the Russian medium in exile “Meduza”.
Leutschanka was held for 15 days – under difficult conditions. “The first night we had mattresses, water, and a sewer system. And everything started on October 2nd,” Leutschanka told the portal. The mattresses were taken away from them, they had to sleep on tables and benches and “on the same day the hot water and sewer system were turned off and two people smuggled in – there were five of us in a four-bed cell.” The basketball player said after her imprisonment: “There is no law in Belarus.”
Alena Leutschanka: The basketball player was in custody. (Source: PanoramiC / imago images)
Sprinter Kristina Timanowskaja was probably afraid of a similar fate. The 24-year-old athlete feared being kidnapped by her own association after criticizing her own coaching team and sought help from the Japanese police at the Olympic Games in Tokyo a few days ago. She has now found refuge in Poland. Read more about this here.
Other athletes are also leaving the country, such as the athlete Jana Maksimawa. On Instagram she writes about a photo with her child: “After much thought, we decided not to return to Belarus.” Maksimawa will live in Germany in the future. A handball coach is also said to have left the country after spending 15 days in prison.
Athletes break with Lukashenko
The relationship of many athletes to their country Belarus has been shattered since August 9, 2020. On that day, ruler Alexander Lukashenko won the presidential election again.
But the suspicion of election fraud arose. The heads of state and government of the EU have not recognized the result. Protests broke out in Belarus and were bloodily suppressed.
Police officers carry away a man covered in blood (archive photo): The protests were brutally suppressed. (Source: ITAR-TASS / imago images)
That is why more than 1,000 athletes signed an open letter last year demanding, among other things, that Lukashenko’s election be recognized as invalid. Numerous Olympic medalists as well as world and European champions were among the signatories. Athletes with whom Lukashenko liked to present himself in public.
Lukashenko stages himself with “Heroes of the Nation”
The head of state emphasized how important sport is for Lukashenko’s politics in 2018. “Thanks to the victories of Belarusian athletes, the reputation of the state is built and people are educated to patriotism,” said the dictator at an event on sport development and made it clear that three Medals at the Winter Olympics in South Korea were not enough. These were mainly achieved in the biathlon by the top athlete Darja Domratschewa.
Domratschewa has now ended her career and is together with her husband Ole Einar Björndalen biathlon trainer in the Chinese team. According to Lukashenko, the ruler personally gave the top athlete permission to do so. “If she succeeds there as a coach, the Chinese will never forget that it was Belarusians who helped them,” he said.
Victory celebration with Lukashenko and Domratschewa: athletes get over 100,000 euros for a gold medal. (Source: President.gov.by)
Lukashenko calls Domratschewa the “heroine of Belarus”, the top athlete herself cultivated a close relationship with the regime. As an athlete, she was employed by the Belarusian secret service KGB until 2014, posed for photos with Lukashenko and even let him throw her into the air after a sporting success.
Yet even heroes of the nation are not fully protected from the violence of the state. Domratschewa’s brother Nikita said he was arrested and beaten by several police officers. The official reason was participation in an unapproved mass event. Nikita Domratschew denies this. He was on the way to see his mother.
Days later, his sister was cautious: The national heroine called for an end to the violence. “The repression we see against athletes and the population is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Katharina Masoud, Belarus expert at the human rights organization Amnesty International in Germany. The pressure on civil society is very high, she adds.
Loss of existence
Domratschewa and other athletes in Belarus can certainly benefit from the dictator’s enthusiasm for sports. For a gold medal, the athletes get more than one hundred thousand euros, in Germany it is only 20,000 euros. But the existence of the athletes mostly depends directly on the state sports system. Criticism of the president endangers their future.
The national basketball player Katsiaryna Snytsina also felt the consequences for her criticism of Lukashenko. In a new contract for the national team, the basketball player should sign that all of her public statements must be checked by the Ministry of Sports and Tourism. She refused.
Since August 9, 2020, other athletes and sports officials have also lost their positions, their scholarships or have been dismissed from the national squads. Some athletes were also fined, 95 athletes like Alena Leutschanka had to spend several days in prison and torture is widespread there, says Masoud.
“We have documented cases in which the police beat people or deprived them of food and water in prison,” said the Belarus expert.
Lukashenko: “I will survive”
Lukashenko would have liked to become an athlete himself. Similar to Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko can often be filmed in sporting action, for example playing football, biathlon or ice hockey.
But in addition to such PR campaigns, the ruler is not just a spectator in the sports business. In 1997 Lukashenko also became president of the National Olympic Committee (NOC). Sports associations are partly filled with confidants, which is why some have also positioned themselves for the president in the election campaign.
Alexander Lukashenko plays ice hockey: the head of state would have liked to become an athlete. (Source: Natalia Fedosenko / imago images)
Lukashenko also tries to bring major sporting events to his country on a regular basis, such as the European Games. This event, which is similar to the Olympic Games, took place in Minsk in 2019. In 2008 the dictator even received a medal from the European Olympic Committee (EOC) for his “outstanding contribution to the Olympic movement”.
But even the organized sports world is slowly turning away from Lukashenko in the face of the protests. The ice hockey world championship was supposed to take place in Belarus in early 2021, but due to “safety issues” and probably the pressure of sponsors, the world championship was held in Latvia.
Lukashenko had to give up his position as NOC president in December last year. His son, Viktor Lukashenko, was supposed to be his successor, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not recognize him. In addition, both were excluded from the games in Tokyo. The Belarusian association has largely lost its financial resources.
“I haven’t participated in these events for 25 years and will survive,” said Lukashenko, who has his own conception of sporting competition anyway. “Today sport is no longer a competition, but a war without rules,” said the Belarusian head of state at a meeting with canoe athletes in 2019.
How athletes defend themselves against Lukashenko
But the athletes are now fighting against Lukashenko’s “war without rules”. One of them is Aljaksandra Herassimenja. The swimmer won three medals. After her active career, she worked as a swimming trainer at various schools.
But after she publicly expressed her criticism of Lukashenko, her contracts were terminated. The former Olympian is now in Lithuania and chairwoman of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), which was founded after the protests.
This campaigns for athletes who are oppressed by Lukashenko’s regime. In this role, the sportswoman faces five years imprisonment. The organization is accused of “calling to endanger national security”. Kristina Masoud from Amnesty International therefore calls for “the international community to put more pressure on Belarus” so that conditions in the country improve.
After her arrest, basketball player Alena Leutschanka is in Greece and plays for Panathinaikos. But despite the repression, the athlete has not yet given up hope of a free Belarus. She wants to return and sends a message to her fellow campaigners: “You have to hold on, it can be a long fight.”