Into the Devil’s Vortex
Alexander Lukashenko’s media outlets aren’t happy with Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya. The least insulting thing they’ve so far said about the Belarusian athlete’s sudden exit from the Tokyo Olympics is that it was precipitated by ‘her emotional and psychological state’. The main TV channel ridiculed her ‘failure’ to qualify for the 100 metres, and called her decision to seek refuge in Poland instead of returning home a ‘cheap stunt’ and a ‘disgusting act’.
Tsimanouskaya’s offence was to be publicly critical after Belarus’s running coaches asked her at short notice to join the 4 x 400 metre relay team. Focused on her imminent 200 metre event, she refused and complained on Instagram that the request showed their ‘negligence’. As far as she was concerned, their preparations had been inadequate; the likely need for substitutes had been foreseeable, since Belarusian athletes have been subject to particularly onerous dope-testing for almost three years.
The squabble rapidly escalated. According to an audio file that’s surfaced on YouTube and Telegram – very possibly recorded by Tsimanouskaya herself – the two senior Belarusian officials in the Olympic Village informed her that their ‘instructions’ were to return her immediately to Belarus. She was relieved of $350 in per diems and driven to Haneda Airport. As she was being escorted through the departure terminal, she alerted the Japanese police and thwarted what would otherwise have been her abduction.
The senior coach, Yuri Moisevich, and his colleague Artur Shumak don’t identify the source of their ‘instructions’, but the translated transcript of the conversation is littered with clues. Moisevich has been speaking to a ‘minister’, but ‘it doesn’t all depend on him anymore, unfortunately’ – and the man on whom it does depend is portrayed as an uncontrollable tyrant. ‘He’ll purge the national team so bad that there’ll be nothing left of us,’ Moisevich says. Shumak tells Tsimanouskaya not to throw ‘more fuel on the fire’: otherwise, ‘you’ll get burned, and you won’t be the only one.’ The menace sounds almost supernatural. ‘You know how a fly just gets itself more entangled, the more it struggles after it lands in a web?’ Shumak says. ‘That’s how life works.’ ‘Pride … will start pulling you into the devil’s vortex and twisting you,’ Moisevich observes. ‘That’s how suicide cases end up, unfortunately.’
The fear and the bullying aren’t hard to explain. Long before the Olympics began, in an address to the ‘trainers, advisers, specialists, masseurs, doctors and other personnel’ headed for Japan, Alexander Lukashenko warned that defeat wasn’t an option. ‘If there are no results in Tokyo, no sporting officials will be retained.’ When he waved the squad off, he urged everyone to remember that sport is always political, and ‘expectations are very high.’ Last week, at a ceremony to dispense academic appointments, Olympic inadequacy was on his mind again. Belarus would probably win more medals if its people were starving, he suggested; far too many athletes (‘especially their wives!’) were rooting for the opposition.
The International Olympic Committee has asked Belarus for a full explanation of the Tsimanouskaya affair. As it must know, it won’t get one. The Belarusian National Olympic Committee, headed by Lukashenko himself for almost 24 years, has been run since last February by his eldest son, Viktor. The head of the Ice Hockey Federation, Dmitry Baskov, was promoted to the executive board at the same time. He shares many of Lukashenko’s sporting interests, and may have blood ties of his own to the regime: to the IOC’s disquiet, he is suspected of involvement in the murder last November of Raman Bandarenka, an opposition activist.
The IOC has been treading a careful line. More than two thousand Belarusian athletes have signed an open letter condemning Lukashenko’s ‘falsified’ re-election and the ‘gross violence’ he has used against peaceful protesters. Many athletes have had their lives blighted by deselection, dismissal or imprisonment. But though it has ruled that the NOC is violating the Olympic Charter’s protections against political victimisation, and excluded its leadership ‘from all IOC events and activities, including the Olympic Games’, it resisted pressures to ban Belarus as a country from Tokyo. That’s understandable. The big question – which is apparently causing consternation in the Olympic Village – is what will happen when the national squad returns.
There’s plenty else Lukashenko might be thinking about. Two of the bravest opposition leaders left in Belarus have just gone on trial in Minsk, and an exiled activist, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in a Kyiv park – less than 36 hours after Krystsyna Tsimanouska’s husband surreptitiously crossed the Ukrainian border for fear of government retribution. Kyiv police are as yet undecided as to whether Shishov killed himself or was the victim of a ‘murder disguised as suicide’. But however Lukashenko chooses to respond to those events, one eye is going to stay fixed on the Olympics. So far, Belarus’s only gold medal is for trampolining. That may not be good enough.