Belarus in 2012 Olympics: High Hopes and Bitter Dissapointments

The 2012 Olympic Games brought little happiness to Belarus' team: not matching even half of their expectations and receiving the fewest medals ever.

This means trouble for Lukashenka’s plans to restore the image of Belarus’ overall prosperity thanks to athletics. Yet during the Games, the disappointed President promised tough showdowns for Belarusian sports state authorities. 

The bitter impression made on Belarusians by the Olympics only worsened once they were over. On 13 August, the International Olympic Committee stripped Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk of her gold medal because she failed a doping test for the anabolic agent metenolone. Ostapchuk denies the accusation.

Planned sports for a planned economy

Twelve medals for a country with a population of 9.5m is not really a bad result. Belarus’ current GDP and corruption international rankings are far more frustrating. However, for some reason the 2012 Olympics caused an unfavourable resonance in Belarus. The first and simplest explanation is that Belarusians expected more from their countrymen.

The grounds for great expectations first appeared in March 2012 when Alexander Lukashenka raised a very high bar for the Belarus team at the Olympics. He wanted them to win 25 medals. Sportsmen and coaches noted the unlikelihood of such an achievement, but the president insisted that the calculation was “iron”, and “that it will be a great surprise if we do not get our medals”. 

Later the same figure was announced by the Minister of Sports and Tourism and little by little flooded the Belarusian media. Lukashenka’s ambitious plan turned out be what everybody had expected. "The president said – the people achieved" is a working scheme for any authoritarian country, though only when the results avoid external and unbiased evaluation.

The Olympics have acted as a touchstone for Belarusian sports. They showed that it is not only the planned economy that does not work: The Belarusian team’s overall medal standing was worse than ever before. In contrast to this year’s 12 medals, the country earned 15  in Atlanta, 17 in Sydney, 19 in Athens, and 15 in Beijing.

Unfaithful medal of Nadzeya Ostapchuk

Depriving Nadzeya Ostapchuk of her gold medal was the final blow inflicted on Belarusians by the Games. According to the International Olympic Committee, Ostapchuk’s samples taken in early August showed the presence of metenolone - an anabolic agent forbidden by the rules. The sportswoman does not accept her guilt and hopes for a change in the verdict.

The accusation is indeed questionable. Several months before the Olympics Ostapchuk passed a number of doping controls: twice in May, three times in June and twice in July. The last testing took place on 30 July in Cologne. All results were negative.

Consequently, in order to have metenolone in her samples Ostapchuk must have taken it after 30 July. At the same time, as the Director of Belarusian National Anti-Doping Agency authoritatively claims, there is no point in taking this particular drug on the eve of the competition. It becomes effective only over a longer period.

Nadzeya is going to challenge the International Olympic Committee’s decision. The experience of Ivan Tsikhan and Vadim Devyatovskiy has proved that appealing such verdicts can be successful. The two Belarusian athletes were accused of taking banned drugs and deprived of their medals. To restore their rights, Tihon and Deviatovsky referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sports. In 2010 the case ended in the withdrawal of the accusation to both athletes and they solemnly got their Olympic medals back.

Whether the same happy end awaits Nadzeya is difficult to predict. In any case Belarusians are eagerly waiting news on her case. 

The Soviet sports heritage

Among the thousands of Belarusian authorities’ convictions inherited from the USSR is that the Olympics are like military actions, but during peace time”. While Lukashenka has only implied this, the Minister of Sports and Tourism voiced this statement to the sportsmen explicitly.

Indeed, such a perception of the Games by the more senior Belarusian sports officials is comprehensible. Superpowers’ athletic confrontations were one of the remarkable aspects of the Cold War. Mutual boycotts of the Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles by the Soviet Union and the USA in 1980 and 1984 and more than 40 years of tough rivalry have left a deep mark on Soviet – now post-Soviet – minds. The 21-year-long sovereign history of Belarus could not eliminate these stereotypes, particularly in the context of strained relations between Belarus and the West.

On the other hand, the fanatic Soviet attitude to sports has worked in Belarus' favour. Vitaly Sherbo, Olga Korbut and Aleksander Medved are still evidence of sports' contributions to Belarusians’ national pride and patriotism. Even now eight out of the 12 medals won were won in Soviet Belarus’ traditionally successful sports: weightlifting, shooting, sprint canoeing, and gymnastics.

Unfortunately, this year’s results suggest that the positive heritage of the USSR fades more quickly than the negative one. Belarusian authorities still view sports as a part of a bigger political picture, as a chance to confront the West. Lukashenka said that sports are "dirt and corruption in all directions" soon after he was denied a visa to attend the Olympic Games in London.

Time will show whether the Belarusian authorities will be able to go beyond viewing sport as merely a geopolitical tool. 

Darya Firsava is a Minsk-based lawyer working on her PhD and leading a number of educational projects in Belarus.

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