The year 2012, the year of the London Olympics, probably was one of the richest in contrast in the history of sovereign Belarusian sports. Astounding rises of few superstars in popular sports made the media patriotically ecstatic. But even after Victoria Azarenka topped the WTA ratings and Darya Domracheva won a gold medal in biathlon, the deepening degradation in the sports industry was totally clear.
The problems that had been accumulating over the past years finally detonated. They came out in various areas: a criminal showdown in track and field athletics, a doping scandal at the Olympic Games in London, the revocation of Olympic medals in 2004 for the same reason, the failure of Belarus ice hockey team at the world championship, the worst Olympic results in the history of independence, the lack of newcomers from the next generation of athletes, and the fight for a place in the sun in sports offices. There were so many negative aspects that even the historic win of FC BATE Borisov over one of the world?s strongest football teams German Bayern and successes in team sports did not pull it all out of the fire. The president decided to replace the sport management.
- Individual achievements on a global level and an advance in team sports;
- Developing doping scandals;
- A failure in finding and coaching athletes who could pick up the slack;
- Long overdue replacement of sport functionaries with a view to reform the industry.
In late January, tennis player Victoria Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title in the Australian Open and was ranked world?s first by the Women?s Tennis Association. The Belarusian retained the unofficial title of world?s top-ranked player for almost the entire year, but has failed to repeat the success of this scale so far. She lost to American Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final and the Olympic semifinal, but did not leave London without a medal. She got bronze in the women?s singles and gold in mixed doubles together with outstanding doubles player Maxim Mirny. President Lukashenko was watching Azarenka?s progress closely: he sent her congratulatory telegrams over and over again and publicly emphasized her role in promotion of Belarus in the international arena.
Biathlete Darya Domracheva is another president?s favorite. The country watched all twists and turns of the Biathlon World Cup competitions on Belarus-2 TV channel. The Belarusian lost the Big Crystal Globe trophy to Magdalena Neuner of Germany, but won the world champion title in one of the distances and a series of races that sent the Belarusian audience into raptures.
Swimmer Alexandra Gerasimenya is the third brightest star. She won silver in the most fiercely competitive 50 and 100 meter freestyle events at the Olympic Games, and later the titles of world and European champion.
The girls have a different sense of patriotism and duty. Victoria Azarenka refused to play for the national team against the teams of the United States and Switzerland for the Fed Cup, the equivalent of the Davis Cup. Domracheva and Gerasimenya on the contrary spare no energy in relay races not trying to save their strength for individual events. Besides, Gerasimenya initiated and hugely contributes to charity projects for orphans and challenged children. When receiving her award, she demanded from the president to appoint a new head of the Swimming Federation.
Forty-four-year-old Sergey Martynov also achieved global scale success. He won every imaginable title in the world?s most popular 50 meter rifle prone, including the Olympic gold thus setting a fantastic world record. However, the shooting sports are not football, biathlon or even swim, so the successes of the super shooter are only known in Belarus among specialists.
Team Belarus took part in the Olympic football tournament for the first time. The age of all but three players was limited to 24 years. The debut was not very successful: a victory over all-time outsiders from New Zealand (1:0) and defeat to the future finalists, Brazilians and Egyptians (1:3 both times).
Belarusian fans were gratified by successes of the Borisov-based club BATE, which became the national champion for the seventh time in a row and made it through to the group stage of the Champions League for the third time. Everyone dreams about the Champions League among other things because the money is good there. In the 2011/2012 season, the team of Anatol Kapsky earned EUR 8.28 million plus nearly half as much from transfer sales of players. BATE Borisov is the only self-sustaining sports club in Belarus.
During the summer qualifying rounds, the team defeated the national champions of Lithuania, Hungary and Israel, and became one of the 32 teams qualified for the Champions League once again. The first two games of the group stage shocked Europe: the Belarusians beat French Lille (away) and Bayern Munich (home) 3:1 in both games. Well, Lille is a typical medium class team, but Bayern is a super club, 2011/2012 Champions League finalist. This triumph will make history in Belarus? football.
After that, the teams started playing against the Belarusians having in mind their strengths and weaknesses and in the remaining four matches did not give BATE a chance even for a draw. But the victories were worth it: each brought a million euros. The Borisov players had never won in group stages of the Champions League before. The third place in the group allowed them switching to the UEFA Europa League.
Other Belarusian football clubs did not get far in European tournaments. Unlike them, Dynamo handball and hockey clubs made a mark. The handball team, which was reinforced with talented players from Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and the Balkan States, also entered the group stage of the Champions League.
The ice hockey team Dynamo Minsk, which is half composed of Europeans and North Americans made its way into the playoffs of the Continental Hockey League Gagarin Cup of the 2011/2012 season, but was stopped by Moscow?s Dynamo club. The series? score was 0:4.
Good results were achieved by other national teams: the women?s basketball team led by Lithuanian specialist Rimantas Grigas and men?s volleyball team led by Alexander Sidelnikov of Russia reached the finals in European tournaments. The men?s handball team coached by Yury Shautsou was among the 24 participants in the World Cup. One of the highest-paid players of the world Siarhei Rutenka, a star of Spanish Barcelona and now captain of Team Belarus, was shining in the qualifying matches.
Arrests, scandals, crime
A corruption/doping scandal broke in Belarus two months before the London Olympics. The KGB arrested head coach of the national team, Vice Chair of the Belarusian Track and Field Athletics Federations Anatol Baduyeu and athletics team physician Pavel Dryneusky. Both went at large four months later and got back to work. No legal actions were taken and no explanations were provided. Baduyeu?s contract with the Ministry of Sports expired shortly after and he was replaced with Alexander Trashchyla who held Baduyeu?s vacant office temporarily for five months before the official assignment.
Baduyeu was rumored to extort bribes for settling doping control issues. The investigation could lead outside Belarus. Other states, even the union ones, pursue their own goals and interests. Perhaps, that is why the investigation died out and no evidence of bribery could be found.
Another scandal, which was probably connected with Baduyeu and Dryneuski?s arrests, erupted in London. Shot put gold winner Nadzeya Astapchuk was accused of using banned drugs. She was the only champion of the previous Games who had to give the gold medal back.
The National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) carried out an investigation in Minsk. Astapchuk?s coach Yafimau said he poured a banned stimulant into coffee of his mentee before going to London. This bizarre version however explains why the doping tests of Astapchuk taken on July 25, 26 and 30 in Minsk came back negative and the tests taken on August 5 and 6 in London were positive. At a press conference, Yafimau made it clear that he was forced to incriminate himself.
The story did not end, though. Since 2004, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) store doping samples for eight years. The samples can be re-examined with the use of the newest detection methods. This was done with the samples of the 2004 Olympic Games. As a result, doping was found in samples of five medal winners including Belarusians ? hammer thrower Ivan Tsikhan and discus thrower Iryna Yatchanka. The first had to return his silver medal, and the second returned a bronze. The bronze medal in hammer throwing was later given to Belarusian Vadim Devyatovsky, who finished fourth.
Later, problems arose with samples taken at the 2005 World Athletics Championship where four Belarusians were exposed: Astapchuk, Tsikhan and Devyatovsky again, and shot putter Andrei Mikhnevich. The outcome of this sad story will be probably known in 2013.
Weightlifter Mikhail Audzeyeu also lost his bronze medal won at the European Championship due to doping use.
12 against 19
Back in 2000, after the successful performance at the Sydney Olympics where the Belarusians won 17 medals, Alexander Lukashenko started speaking about 25 medals. This figure was then talked about everywhere as an ideal target. Minister of Sports and Tourism Aleh Kachan and Assistant to the President Ihar Zaichkou (both have been removed from office) repeatedly assured that this goal was achievable, although according to the performance statistics on world championships, the possible range was 12 to 15 awards. The lower margin became a reality: Belarus won 12 medals, which was the worst result in its history of independence.
It was a fallback in all directions. This regression cannot be accidental. It is a result of a systemic crisis caused by the economic frustration, rampant corruption and the failure to maintain up-to-date structural organization of Belarusian sports.
The situation can be however viewed from another angle. Belarus is a medium-size European country in terms of both the territory and population. In the unofficial medal chart Belarus? Olympic brigade is rated 26th among more than two hundred delegations. Having comparable populations are Hungary (17 medals, including 8 gold), the Netherlands (20 and 6), Cuba (14 and 5), the Czech Republic (10 and 4), Sweden (8 and 1), Belgium (3 and 0), Bulgaria (0 and 2), Greece in crisis (2 and 0) and Portugal (1 and 0). Belarus is in the middle of the list after Hungary, the Netherlands, Cuba, and the Czech Republic.
Much larger countries are below Belarus (see the summary table below): Romania (9 medals, 2 gold ones), Turkey (5 and 2), Canada (18 and 1), Mexico (7 and 1), Argentina (4 and 1) and India (6 and 0). Not far ahead are Spain (17 medals, 3 gold) and future Olympics host Brazil (17 and 3), which are enormously larger than Belarus. Among the former Soviet republics, Belarus is the 4th. It is no shame to lose to Russian and Ukrainian Olympians, but Belarusians had never given way to Kazakhstan before.
As seen from the results of the Belarusian team, the sports, which have always been considered to be flagships, became a huge disappointment. Track and field athletics, wrestling and rowing did not deliver a single Olympic award as against the Games in Beijing where they brought a dozen of medals. Long-standing traditions collapsed: track and field athletes and wrestlers, who had never come back empty-handed since the distant year 1980, had nothing this time.
The statistics shows that the UK?s capital saw the oldest team in the post-Soviet history of Belarus. Gold medals were taken by 44-year-old Sergei Martynov and 35-year-old Maxim Mirny (in the double with Victoria Azarenka, 23). Silver winners in canoe double Raman Piatrushenka and Vadzim Makhneu are almost 32 and 33 respectively. Canoeist Alexander Bogdanovich, who won silver in canoe double, is 30. Four out of seven rhythmic gymnasts-medalists have ended their careers.
Many veterans, who were expected to reach the Olympics podium, came short of hopes. Among them are 40-year-old rower Ekaterina Karsten, 36-year-old shot putter Andrei Mikhnevich and his age mate, ping pong master Vladimir Samsonov, 35-year-old wrestler Ruslan Sheikhov, 34-year-old gymnast Dmitry Kasperovich, and 33-year-old judoka Ihar Makarau. Forty-seven out of 168 athletes (28%) were 30 years of age and over, and every tenth was over 35.
Those who were 20 to 23 in 2008 were supposed to reach the sports career peak attaining the perfect winning age of 24 to 27. Unfortunately, the national reserve failed the Olympic test. Children?s and youth sport schools are mired in poverty. Children?s coaches work for peanuts and have to look for side jobs. The most talented children are drilled hard to provide highest possible results, quite often with the help of banned drugs. That is why most of the disqualified athletes are young people at the age of 16 to 21.
Belarus? performance in Rio de Janeiro will be a complete fiasco unless a qualitative shift in training the Olympic reserve is brought about in the near future, and the 12 medals taken in London will look like a tremendous success.
Reshuffle in sports management
When back from London, Aleh Kachan and Ihar Zaichkau started looking for ?scapegoats.? They published a list of over seventy people to be blamed for the Olympic failure. Most of them were demoted and few were fired, while the minister and his assistant behaved like pure virgins, who had nothing to do with that.
The Olympic meeting was held in late October. President Lukashenko scarified the sports bosses and kicked them out. Non-professionals were tasked to rectify the situation: Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations General Alexander Shamko, 44, was appointed minister of sports; 40-year-old diplomat Maxim Ryzhankou was appointed assistant to the President for sports and tourism; General Ihar Rachkousky, 44, who was removed from the office of border troops commander recently, is now first vice chairman of the NOC. They are to carry out structural reforms in the sports industry. Anatol Tozik, who the president ordered to lead the Federation of Swimming, is their immediate supervisor.
The new management ? Shamko, Rachkousky and Ryzhankou ? found themselves in a tight spot: they are supposed to clean the Augean stables of Belarusian sports having little time and scarce funding. And, besides, they need time to play in and get a feel of industry specifics. They are to revive children?s and youth sports, which have one foot in the grave, create a college sports infrastructure almost from scratch, and eliminate the deficit in sport facilities. The paramount task is to put team sports clubs on a market foundation to change their welfare mentality into partial self-sufficiency.
The most serious problems persist in ice hockey. The preparation for the World Championship is entering the crucial phase. The reserve is as weak as in most sports. It should be taken into account that the reform will be put into practice in conditions of severe budget constraints that will definitely affect the process.