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Paris Olympics: Dissident Belarusians abandoned by IOC

February 20, 2023

Olympic organizers are facing growing criticism over plans to let Russians and Belarusians into the Paris Olympics. But athletes from Belarus who openly oppose their president risk being left behind, whatever happens.

Karyna Kazlouskaya prepares to fire an arrow
Karyna Kazlouskaya feels athletes who voiced their opposition in Belarus are being ignoredImage: Li Gang/Xinhua/picture alliance

When she was a child, Karyna Kazlouskaya never imagined she would get to compete at the Olympics. Archery was just a hobby for her, one of many sports she practiced with her friends. 

The more she trained, however, the more she found she was good at it, and the hobby became her profession. A fourth-place finish in the team event at the Tokyo Games in 2021 was the culmination of years of effort and improvement.

But what should have been the fulfillment of a dream turned out to be a nightmare for Kazlouskaya. She was riddled with anxiety throughout the competition, because she had dared speak out against the leader of her country, Alexander Lukashenko.

"There was a lot of stress," Kazlouskaya, 22, told DW. "I really wanted to show what I could do because you only have that kind of big competition maybe once in a lifetime. But I wasn't able to relax.

"I was under the control of the Belarusian Olympic Committee, and there were a lot of things I wasn't allowed to do. They even put someone with us, probably from the KGB [the Belarusian secret service], who observed us when we were shooting."

IOC 'just left us'

At a time when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is pushing for a reintegration of Russian and Belarusian athletes, despite Russia's war in Ukraine, government critics like Kazlouskaya have been left in limbo.

Belarusian exiles in Ukraine support war effort

She is among more than one hundred Belarusian sportspeople who have fallen afoul of Lukashenko's regime. Since his controversial August 2020 reelection, which led to months of mass protests, openly dissenting athletes have been detained, lost their government-sponsored jobs and — as was the case for Kazlouskaya — been forced off national teams.

For the purposes of international competition, they are effectively stateless, ostracized for their political views. Even if other athletes from Belarus are eventually allowed to compete in Paris, Kazlouskaya won't be among them as things currently stand.

Earlier this month, Poland's sports minister mooted the idea of creating a refugee team made up of Russian and Belarusian dissident athletes. However, it's unclear how this would work in the context of the current Olympic refugee team, and given the fact that some dissident athletes are in the process of changing, or have changed, nationality.

Asked if she felt abandoned by the IOC, Kazlouskaya said: "Yes, there is that sense," adding that two letters she sent to the organization about her plight went unanswered.

"They just left us, the people who suffered under the regime. They didn't do anything," she said.

Belarusian athletes suffer threats, intimidation

Ever since signing an open letter in 2020 demanding new elections, Kazlouskaya, said she has endured threats and intimidation. Fearing for her safety, she decided to flee Belarus last April and continue her archery career in neighboring Poland.

"The head of the Belarusian federation put a lot of pressure on me," she said. "He said that I should stop my political activity and stay quiet. I had those sorts of conversations a lot.

"Everything got worse after the war started. We started getting checked by the Sports Ministry for everything. And I realized that either it would be my last year as an athlete or I would have to leave the country."

The IOC's Olympic Charter requires National Olympic Committees to "take action against any form of discrimination and violence in sport." Failure to do so can result in an Olympic Committee being suspended and its athletes barred from Olympic events.

Earlier this month, the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an opposition athlete-led movement, called on the IOC to defend Belarusian athletes punished by the authorities, declaring they "should be granted the right to participate in sports competitions and saved from persecution by the Lukashenko regime for their civic position."

DW approached the IOC for comment on the BSSF's declaration and how it is protecting dissident athletes, but it only responded after the publication deadline (see update at the end of the article).

It failed to answer why it hadn't suspended the Belarusian NOC — which is headed by Lukashenko's son, Viktor — for appearing to breach the Olympic Charter.

Belarusian Olympic Committee 'violates principles of Olympism'

The BSSF was set up to provide financial and legal assistance to opposition athletes. They include Kazlouskaya and sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who made headlines at the Tokyo Games in 2021 when she refused to get on a flight back to Belarus, following public criticism of her coaches and an ensuing backlash at home.

Like Kazlouskaya, Tsimanouskaya now lives and trains in Poland. She has joined an athletics club in Warsaw and takes part in local competitions with other international athletes.

Even though the 26-year-old has obtained Polish citizenship, Olympic rules mean she must wait three years before she can represent her adopted country. Unless the Belarusian Olympic Committee waives this cooling off period, she also has little chance of making it to Paris.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya holds her head in her hands
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has taken Polish citizenship, but the rules currently mean she is unlikely to be able to compete at the Paris Olympics next yearImage: Aleksandra Szmigiel/REUTERS

"The athletes and coaches that currently represent the Belarusian team were chosen according to political principles and not athletic ones," Tsimanouskaya told DW.

"Only people loyal to the regime are in the team at the moment, people who were approved by the KGB. That violates the principles of Olympism and the rights of athletes like me. It looks like we don't have any rights."

'Zero' support from IOC

Tsimanouskaya said she too has received "zero" support from the IOC. She claims officials haven't contacted her since the day she landed in Poland from Tokyo, and that she never heard back from them after applying for a financial grant through the Olympic solidarity fund.

The IOC was offered the chance to respond to Tsimanouskaya's claims. It replied after DW's publication deadline, saying: "During her time in Poland, the Olympic Movement, represented by the Polish NOC and the Polish Athletics Federation, is supporting her."

As far as BSSF director Alexander Opeikin is concerned, it is a classic example of the organization's hypocrisy.

"If they speak about 'human rights' regarding official Belarusian and Russian athletes, why don't they care about the rights of other Belarusian athletes who were repressed?" Opeikin said in a phone message.

Tsimanouskaya said she is looking forward to running for Poland one day, a sign of her gratitude to the country for accepting her. But she knows that several of her former teammates aren't in such a position.

"It's clear that I won't be representing Belarus again," she said. "But at the very least I want my country to be free and for the war to stop."

"I would just like the International Olympic Committee to hear our voices, the voices of the athletes who have faced repression. For them to hear our voices and to exercise our rights in some way."

Edited by: Matt Pearson

Update February 20, 2023: The IOC responded to DW's request for comment one week after the original publication date. It said it had "taken a number of measures vis-à-vis the NOC of Belarus," including not recognizing the election of Viktor Lukashenko as Belarus' National Olympic Committee (NOC) president.

The IOC claimed Tsimanouskaya was being supported by the Polish Olympic Committee and the Polish Athletics Federation, saying: "It is important to highlight once again that the day-to-day relationships with the individual athletes of the Olympic Movement are handled by the respective NOCs and the national sports federations in their territories."