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Conspiracy and prejudice: Belarus and doping scandals

On 24 January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne rescinded the Belarusian national rowing team's suspension. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) had banned the team in July 2016, just a couple of weeks before the Olympics...

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Aliaksandr Bahdanovich recieves a flag from the president. Photo: euroradio.fm

On 24 January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne rescinded the Belarusian national rowing team's suspension. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) had banned the team in July 2016, just a couple of weeks before the Olympics in Rio.

Justice triumphed. Belarusian sport officials claim that due to the ban, Belarus had lost at least three Olympic medals, and they intend to seek compensation from the ICF. According to the sport ministry, $750,000 were spent to prepare the rowers for the Olympics.

This is not the only recent doping scandal. In November 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deprived Belarusian athletes of three medals won in Beijing in 2008. Over the last twelve years, Belarus has been deprived of ten Olympic medals because of doping related charges. However, two of them were returned after appeals.

In most of cases, Belarusian officials and public opinion side with the athletes. Even very highly-positioned sport officials publicly accuse international sport organisations of corruption and see conspiracies against Belarus regardless of whether athletes are guilty or not.

The rowers’ case

The investigation of the rowing team started in April 2016 when the French anti-doping agency, accompanied by police, raided the Belarusian national rowing team's training-camp in Le Temple-sur-Lot, in southern France. According to tests, five Belarusian athletes had recently been using the banned drug meldonium. Members of the team stated that the athletes had used permissible doses of the drug for therapeutic purposes. Nevertheless, the investigation led the ICF to ban the Belarusian team several weeks before the Olympics.

The Belarusian sport ministry defended the national team from the very beginning. Several days after the police raid, vice-chair of the Sport Ministry Aliaksandr Gagiev declared that the purpose of the raid was to hinder the Belarusian team from properly preparing for the Olympic season.

After the ICF banned the team in July, the aggressive rhetoric from the Belarusian authorities continued. In an official statement, the Ministry of Sport accused the ICF of drawing out the case unnecessarily. According to the officials, the team was eliminated in order to prevent Belarus from winning medals in rowing. The statement also hinted at corruption within the ICF.

'They think Belarus acts the same as Honduras and we swallow it all.' Read more

After the court rescinded the suspension towards the end of January, officials stated that they would seek monetary compensation. Despite the fact that half a year had passed since the Olympics, comments from officials remained very emotional. The coach of the national rowing team, Uladzimir Shantarovich, confused journalists with odd and unnecessary statements.

In an interview with the popular Belarusian news portal tut.by he claimed: 'They think Belarus acts the same as Honduras and we swallow it all.' Why the coach chose a Central American country for comparison remains unknown. In another interview, the coach threatened to humiliate ICF functionaries during the European Games, which Belarus is set to host in 2019. He wanted to force them to sweep courtyards with brooms.

Belarusian athletes and doping scandals

Several years ago, there was much discussion in Belarus about the criminalisation of doping. However, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not treated as a serious offence. Top athletes accused of doping have never been strictly punished by the authorities. None of them ever returned the awards they received from the government for their victories in the Olympics.

Last November, after the IOC announced that it would deprive three Belarusian weightlifters of their Olympic medals, the press-secretary of the National Olympic Committee stated that the prize-money would not be be taken away because the law does not provide for such a procedure.

Obviously, government officials sympathise with the penalised athletes. One of the most well-known doping cases is that of Nadzeya Astapchuk. She was deprived of the Olympic gold medal in shot put which she had won in 2012 in London. After tests proved that she had used methenolone, her coach stated that he had put the drug in the athlete's cup of coffee during a lunch break and Astapchuk hadn’t noticed it.

The explanation did not satisfy the public. Journalists and commentators questioned the official version of the story, pointing out that methenolone does not dissolve in coffee. As a result, the National Olympic Committee disqualified the coach for four years. Astapchuk got two years of suspension, but president Lukashenka publicly reassured the athlete, saying: 'Nadzya, this is not the end. In the future you will have the opportunity to prove your excellence.'

Athletes in Parliament

In many countries, victories in sport open doors in politics, business, and the entertainment world. But involvement in doping scandals usually means the end of advertising contracts and public condemnation for athletes. In Belarus however, the situation is different.

In September 2016, the leader of the suspended rowing team, Aliaksandr Bahdanovich, won a seat in the Parliament. It should be noted that he was one of five rowers which the ICF had accused of doping, and he received the post while the suspension was still in effect. The 34-year-old athlete became the second Olympic medalist to enter parliament and got a position on the Permanent Commission on National Security.

A similar story happened with another medalist: current deputy Vadzim Dzieviatouski. The silver medal he had won in the hammer throw in 2008 was recalled due to a doping violation, but later reinstated in 2010. He won a seat in the Parliament in 2012. Doping-related controversies did not prevent him from heading the Athletics Federation of Belarus in 2014. It goes without saying that both deputies tow the official line.

Aliaksandr Lukashenka is well known for his love of ice hockey. He also plays tennis with Viktoria Azarenka and publicly advises the Belarusian biathlon star Daria Domrachava on how to win. Sport champions enjoy great popularity in Belarus and can often be seen on Belarusian billboards and on TV.

Most athletes are very loyal to the government. For this reason, involvement in doping scandals does not seriously influence their social status within the country. As in Russia, accusations of doping are often perceived as foreign meddling in Belarusian professional sport.

The rowers’ case shows that doping accusations can even lead to a career in politics. The public sees athletes as victims of international conspiracies, often turning them into martyrs. Even when the guilt of top athletes is unquestionable, they receive lenient punishments and sympathetic treatment from the authorities.

Belarusian doping violations are often overshadowed by Russian ones. They don't attract the same amount of attention from foreign journalist and are widely discussed only inside the country. However, the number of penalised Olympic athletes remains very high. Unfortunately, as in many ex-communist countries, the use of doping in Belarus in professional sport is not an unusual phenomenon.​

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Vadzim Bylina
Vadzim Bylina
Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.
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