Sports: Strangers are dearer than the locals

Barys Tasman


Contrasting processes dominating in the Belarusian sports reached a culmination point. The big achievements in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games and successful holding of the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014 were combined with resonant failures of football players, poverty of children’s sports and shortage of sports centers. In a number of sports (biathlon, ice-hockey, free-style wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling) functionaries purposefully adopt foreigners who then receive Belarusian citizenship.

The best in history

For Belarusian athletes of winter sports the Olympics in Sochi are the 6th. The teams competed in five previous Games were more numerous. In 2002 Salt Lake City Belarus was represented by 64 athletes, in 1998 Nagano – by 58 athletes, in 2010 Vancouver – by 49 athletes (in all three cases the number includes the ice-hockey team), in 1994 Lillehammer – by 33 athletes, in 2006 Turin – by 28 athletes, in Sochi the total number of athletes was 26. The range of sports represented has also fallen from seven-nine to five (biathlon, freestyle skiing, cross-country skiing, Alpine skiing, short-track). This time those for whom the main motto was “it is not the winning but the taking part that counts” were in a minority in the national team. The concentration of money and efforts enabled Belarus to achieve the best result in its history.

Celebrated results, as a rule, are achieved mainly by the outdoors biathletes and freestylers (ski acrobats). Winning prizes in Sochi were expected from them. The hope was one or two medals from the two-time world champion Darya Domracheva and a medal from men-freestylers: Alexei Grishin and Dmitry Dashchinsky became Olympic medalists twice, and Anton Kushnir was a World Cup winner. Experienced aerial skier Alla Tsuper and biathlete Nadezhda Skardino were expected to support the leaders. This means that before the start there was a hope for 2–3 awards. However, the results became much brighter than the boldest predictions!

During previous five Winter Olympics Belarusians won 9 awards: 1 gold, 4 silver, 4 bronze medals. In Sochi Belarus won 6 medals, 5 of which were gold! The record was also the amount of points awarded for the 1st–8th places – 55 points (see Table 1).

Olympics Types Medals Points
ОG 1994 7 2 (0–2–0) 37.0
ОG 1998 9 2 (0–0–2) 20.5
ОG 2002 9 1 (0–0–1) 31.0
ОG 2006 7 1 (0–1–0) 33.0
ОG 2010 6 3 (1–1–1) 32.5
ОG 2014 5 6 (5–0–1) 55.0
Table 1. Achievements of Belarusian athletes at the Winter Olympics, 1994–2014

The representatives of winter sports even surpassed their colleagues from summer sports in gold medals. In previous years the Belarusians had four victories only once in London 2012. Five awards of the highest value let the national team of Belarus for the first time enter the top ten in the medal standings leaving, behind athletes from Austria, France, Sweden, Finland, Poland, China, Japan (see Table 2).

Place Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 Russia 13 11 9 33
2 Norway 11 5 10 26
3 Canada 10 10 5 25
4 USA 9 7 12 28
5 The Netherlands 8 7 9 24
6 Germany 8 6 5 19
7 Switzerland 6 3 2 11
8 Belarus 5 0 1 6
9 Austria 4 8 5 17
10 France 4 4 7 15
Table 2. The medal standings at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, 2014
Note. Places were awarded according to the number of gold medals.
The import of ‘semi-finished products’

What is the reason behind such a brilliant performance of the Belarusians at the Olympics? Especially when considering the fact that youth sports are in decay and problems with the preparation of the reserve have become chronic. The answer is: in the current national team for the Olympics only 2/3 of the athletes were born and grew up in Belarus, the rest descended from Russia and Ukraine. All four medal winners – Domracheva, Skardino, Tsuper, Kushnir – received their basic training outside Belarus.

Alla Tsuper comes from the Ukrainian city of Rivno. When she was 18 she was capped for Ukraine and took the 5th place at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano. In the same year she moved to Belarus together with the coach Vitaly Shvedov and his four athletes. At the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, in Turin in 2006 and in Vancouver in 2010 she reached the top 12 of finalists, although she did not get further than the 8th place. Her Olympic victory was a surprise.

Anton Kushnir also comes from the Rivno region. He came to Belarus as an 18-year-old athlete. At the Olympic Games in 2006 he got through to the final and took the 8th place. In Vancouver he stayed out of the final competition. In Sochi Kushnir flawlessly qualified through a complex selection system of four finalists and at the decisive moment he brilliantly performed a record-breaking jump – a triple salto with five pirouettes.

Hadezda Skardino is a native of Leningrad, went in for ski racing. At the age of 19 she was offered to change sports specialization and move to Belarus. At the 2010 Olympics in four races she took 22nd–28th places. In the 2013/2014 Olympic season she set a shooting accuracy world record: she did not miss 110 targets in a row at twenty-two shooting zones. It helped her to win a bronze medal in the most difficult and longest race of 15 km, where for a missed target you get one penalty minute.

Darya Domracheva was born in Minsk. At 4 she moved to Nyagan (Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, Russia) with her parents. In 1992 she started ski racing and in 1999 switched to biathlon. A champion of Russia among cadets and girls in 2004 she represented the Russian Federation at the Youth World and European Championships. In 2005 he made her debut in the national team of Belarus. In 2010 in Vancouver she won the Olympic bronze, and later won at the World Championships twice.

These facts leave no doubts: everything is done to attract talented boys and girls from neighboring countries to Belarus and to create conditions for their improvement. This often leads to scandals like the one on the eve of the Games in Sochi about the presence of Anastasia Kalina, a Russian, in the Belarusian team. 1 For the sake of medals no expense is spared. The biathlon national team invited a coach from Germany (Klaus Siebert) and a serviceman from France (Olivier Ganon). When there appeared some problems with a Frenchman, his position was given to Ivar Ulekleiv, an eminent Norwegian specialist in ski preparation. Another Frenchman, eight-time world champion Raphaël Poirée was a head of a men’s team for a year. But, as you can see, a lot of spending in biathlon was justified by four Olympic medals. Also the women’s relay quartet took the 5th place where along with Domracheva and Skardino there was more ex-Russian – Nadezhda Pisareva, as well as a resident of Barysau, Liudmila Kalinchyk.

Ski acrobatics is a non-mass sports but here we have a national sports school headed by Mikalai Kazeka. Under his leadership the Belarusians got 6 medals – 3 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze in five Olympic Games. In Sochi, Dmitry Dashchinsky and Denis Osipov took the 8th and the 9th places.

The best homegrown winter athlete is 40-year-old Siarhei Dalidovič. At his sixth Olympics he finished fifth in the 50-km marathon, leaving behind strong rivals.

A window to the world

The European Parliament took the initiative to move the 2014 Ice-Hockey World Championship from Belarus to another country because of political prisoners and violations of human rights. However, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) decided not to politicize this issue.

The World Championship became a significant event in the history of the country. In Soviet times Minsk hosted the Biathlon World Championship three times (1974, 1982, 1990) and one Wrestling Championship in 1975. In 2013 the cycling ground “Minsk-Arena” hosted the Track-Racing World Championship. But this is not as popular among the public as ice-hockey is. There was also a ‘step-down’ factor: three months before the Minsk World Championship the hockey players competed in Sochi. For the sake of the Olympics the strongest professional Leagues – NHL and the KHL announced a break in their Championships. The line-ups of the majority of teams that arrived in Minsk for the competitions were far from ideal.

And yet it was an interesting tournament and the ‘hockey’ states (Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic) competed for medals. The Belarusian national team made it to the quarter finals where it lost to the Swedes with a score 2:3 and took the 7th place. The previous time when the Belarusians were in the top eight was in 2009. In 2011–2013 they took the 14th place, so the local public was pleased with such results. In the national team of the hosts there were two Canadians – Geoff Platt and Kevin Lalande, who had previously received Belarusian citizenship.

The stadium utilization during Minsk Forum proved to be a record: over 643 thousand spectators visited 64 matches and the average attendance was more than 10 000 people per match. Before that the leader had been the 2004 World Championship: in Prague and Ostrava the same rate was 9 859 people per match. IIHF President René Fasel pronounced the Minsk tournament the best in history.

The interest of the Belarusian was not really great. But functionaries as always made hay: schoolchildren, students and soldiers were driven to the matches that did not arouse interest among local sports fans. However, the ice arenas in “Minsk-Arena” and “Čyžoǔka-Arena” sports complexes during the matches between the national teams of Belarus, Russia and Latvia were filled without any external help.

Foreign tourists who bought tickets for the matches of the World Championship had the right of visa-free entry into the country from April 25 till May 31. The head of the State Border Committee of Belarus Leonid Maltsev said more than 31 thousand foreign fans and participants of the hockey forum used that right. More than 10.3 thousand people came from Latvia, 4.3 thousand from Lithuania, more than 2 thousand were from Finland and Poland and a little fewer from Slovakia, Finland, and the Czech Republic. More than 400 tourists came from the United States, about 300 were from Canada. 2 Russians as citizens of the Union State crossed the border freely. We can assume that there were at least 25 thousand of them.

Foreigners bought through “Ticketpro” ticket operator more than 60 thousand tickets. According to the Department of Consumer and Hotel Services of Minsk City Executive Committee, in the period from May 9–25, Minsk hotels reached a two-month turnover. With the opening of fourteen new hotels the key counts increased more than twice – from 4 405 to 9 250 hotel beds. The average occupancy of Minsk hotels during the Hockey World Championship was 83%. 3

Did the city make a profit on the Ice Hockey World Championship? There is no exact information about it. For the construction costs of the Čyžoǔka-Arena sports complex, hotels, three metro stations, the reconstruction of the National Airport “Minsk”, the expansion of major highways to four lanes, the updating of the abandoned neighborhood Čyžoǔka, etc. were expected to exceed USD 1 billion. However the transport, hotel and retail infrastructure will continue to pay off in the long term.

Another effect is mental. Citizens could communicate freely with the guests of the Championship. No matter how much we say that Belarus is the heart of Europe, our real ties with the West are very limited. In the fan zones and ‘hospitality areas’ the hosts and guests discovered each other. Two weeks in May showed that to communicate is easier without ‘visa fences’ and other barriers.

Defeated “Dinamo”

Preparation of the Ice Hockey World Championship probably was such a heavy burden for the budget that sports experienced this already at the beginning of the last year. In March the handball club “Dinamo” (Minsk) ceased to exist though during two years it had successfully competed in the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament. In summer 2013 the club bought a dozen of mercenaries. This expensive waste was financed by the Belarusian Society of Sports and Physical Training “Dinamo”. However, after the head of the Society Yuri Borodich was replaced by ex-Minister of Emergency Situations Enver Bariev the cash flow dried up. For some time the handball players were supported by the concern “Belneftekhim” that soon also stopped its charity.

The football clubs (FC) of all three leagues seesawed for the whole season. The Brest FC “Dinamo”, Babrujsk “Belshyna”, Navapolack “Naftan” were all in a disastrous state. At the end of the season a mass loss of players occurred. A scandal broke out in Hrodna “Nioman”: 18 players left because of the overdue salaries, many filed suits.

FC “Minsk” announced a 30% reduction in the club’s budget and the dissolution of the first league team “Minsk-2”. In the second league in the middle of the championship the capital FC “Partizan” retired. Minsk FC SKVICH and Kalinkavičy FC “Vertikal” skipped some away matches.

With rare exceptions, teams of the Premier and the first leagues exist on public money. They do not have their own stadiums or real estate, and the attendance of their matches is very low (in the Premier league – 1845 people per match, in the first league – 527 people per match). This means that there is no possibility to do any business.

Barysau FC BATE and Dinamo Minsk, to a lesser extent Salihorsk FC “Shakhter” looked as oases of well-being. Players of Barysau FC BATE and Dinamo Minsk successfully passed the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the Europa League respectively and got into the group tournaments. FC Shakhter stopped a step away from the same luck. However the Belarusian clubs won only once having suffered a series of sensitive defeats from well-known rivals. BATE lost to Donetsk Shakhter (0:7) and (0:5), to Portuguese Porto (0:6) and (0:3), to Spanish “Athletic” from Bilbao (0:2). “Dinamo” was defeated by Greek PAOK (1:6) and (0:2,) by Italian “Fiorentina” (0:3) and by French “Gingaman” (0:2).

The national team that started in the qualifying tournament of the European Championship in 2016 also disappointed. After the away match with the draw score against Luxembourg (1:1) the team lost three times in a row: during the home match to the Ukrainians (0:2) and the Slovaks (1:3), and during the away match to the Spaniards (0:3). The head coach Georgy Kondratyev voluntarily resigned and former player of Minsk and Kiev “Dynamo” Alexander Khatskevich took his position.

In Barysau a football stadium with a capacity of 13 thousand seats was opened. Once the main sports arena of the country – the capital stadium “Dinamo” has been closed for renovation for three years already. The projects and the executives have changed several times. The project requires a minimum of EUR 150 million. Where to find it when the economy is in a deep crisis and ahead are the Presidential elections?


The deepening of economic crisis is reflected in the sports industry which is financed mainly from the state budget. It affected primarily the children’s and mass sports that do not generate quick dividends. The development of private sports schools is hampered by bureaucratic obstacles, the lack of sports real estate (stadiums, swimming pools, gyms) in small and medium business and the high cost of their rent from state-owned enterprises.

Team sports clubs are not able to earn, because they do not have their own property, are not attractive for advertisers and do not own the rights to broadcast the competitions.

To hide the ineffective work on the preparation of sports rotation, established foreign athletes who are available in their own country, or young talented juniors, as a rule, from Russia and Ukraine, are brought to Belarus and provided with opportunities for development, often at the expense of local athletes.