Sports: The worst Olympic year ever

Borys Tasman

Summary

The performance of the Belarusian national team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was the litmus test to determine the efficiency of the entire sports industry in Belarus: negative trends that had accumulated for years turned into the worst performance of the national team in the history of the sovereign country. Doping problems reduced the size of the Belarusian Olympic delegation to a record low and weakened it. In addition, seven awards of the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics were annulled.

Sloppy work with the reserve led to the fact that the national Olympic team was a record ‘old’ one. Criminalization hidden in the depths of the industry manifested in litigations on a national scale.

Trends:
Olympic retreat

At the main sports event held every four years – the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – the Belarusian team won 9 medals: 1 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze. In the medal count Belarus took the 40th position (Table 1). It was the lowest result of the Belarusian Olympic team at the summer Games. The number of medals is the worst in the history of sovereign Belarus (see Table 2).

Place* Country Gold medal Silver medal Bronze medal Total
1 (1) USA 46 37 38 121
2 (4) UK 27 23 17 67
3 (2) China 26 18 26 70
4 (3) Russia 19 18 19 56
5 (5) Germany 17 10 15 42
21 (47) Uzbekistan 4 2 7 13
22 (18) Kazakhstan 3 5 9 17
31 (12) Ukraine 2 5 4 11
38 (32) Georgia 2 1 4 7
39 (25) Azerbaijan 1 7 10 18
40 (22) Belarus 1 4 4 9
Table 1. Medal count of the 31st Olympic Games
*Medal count is ranked by the priority of gold medals. In brackets the places of the Olympic teams at the 2012 Olympics are indicated.

Almost three months later, the President of Belarus and of the National Olympic Committee, Alexander Lukashenko, gave quite a harsh assessment of the performance of the Belarusian team: “We all saw how our athletes performed during the Olympic Games in Rio. I see that our sport functionaries keep talking happily about it. They are satisfied… Well, they may be satisfied but you and I are not and neither is the nation?” 1

Year Gold medal Silver medal Bronze medal Total
1996 1 6 8 15
2000 3 3 11 17
2004 2 5 6 13
2008 3 4 7 14
2012 2 5 3 10
2016 1 4 4 9
Table 2. Medals of Belarus at the Summer Olympics

From the point of view of the Belarusian leadership, to lose to the representatives of the United States, China and Europe is not so shameful as to be behind some of the countries of the former USSR. Previously only the Russians and the Ukrainians were ahead of the Belarusians. In London in 2012, Kazakhstan joined them. Now the picture is quite different: the Belarusian national team was bypassed by Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In this conventional competition Belarus took the distant seventh place.

It is known that its 18 awards Azerbaijan won largely due to the active naturalization of athletes from other countries. However, one cannot ignore a serious progress of Uzbeks (13 medals) and Kazakhs (17 medals), who don’t try to be masters of all Olympic trades but focus on martial arts: boxing, freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling, judo. The results are amazing. In the ring, for example, boxers from Uzbekistan surpassed Cubans and became world leaders.

Factors of decline

In Brazil, the Belarusian Olympic team was the smallest in the entire sovereign history of the country: 124 athletes. Even if to add seven kayakers and canoeists, who were arbitrarily removed from the Olympics by the decision of the ICF, there would remain 131 people whereas in London in 2012 there were 168 athletes and in Beijing in 2008 – 181 representative of Belarus. Before Rio, Belarus had the smallest teams in 1996 (144 people) and in 2000 (134 people). Thus, during eight years the country lost fifty Olympians, which cannot be accidental. Let us highlight the main reasons for this decline.

1. Stricter doping controls. As a result, the following athletes were disqualified or removed: the hammer throwers Oksana Menkova and Pavel Kryvicki, runners Natalia Koreivo and Anis Ananenko, long jumper Nastassia Mironchyk-Ivanova, shot-putters Nadzeya Ostapchuk, Pavel Lyzhyn, Andrei Mikhnevich and Natalia Mikhnevich, walker Anna Drabenia, weight-lifter Maryna Shkermankova, etc. All of them are participants of Olympic Games and world championships, top-ranking athletes. In total around two dozen Olympians were out. But the doping control stopped also less famous athletes who failed to adjust to new methods of preparation.

Since 2004, the IOC has stored doping samples of medalists of the Olympics for eight years so that at the end of this period to recheck them with new anti-doping technologies. More than a thousand samples of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics were re-analyzed on sixteen kinds of sports taken from the representatives of 89 countries. More than a hundred tests proved to be positive for doping. According to the results of rechecking Belarus lost 5 medals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (1 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze), and 2 bronze medals of the 2012 London Olympics. 2

2. Weak reserves. A classic example is gymnastics: Belarusians made it to the Olympic podiums from 1960 to 1996. In Rio, Belarus was represented by American Kylie Dixon and former Russian Andrei Likhovitsky. A similar pattern is observed in fencing: Belarusian ‘Musketeers’ dominated the Games from 1960 to 1988. In Brazil only Alexander Bujkevich fenced. Free-style wrestling is completely dominated by wrestlers from the North Caucasus now: in Rio there were Asadulla Lachinov, Omargadzhi Magomedov and Ibragim Saidov who, by the way, won the bronze medal.

In many types of sports due to the lack of decent reservists and true competition the gaps were filled by veterans. In the end, in Rio the Olympic team of Belarus was the oldest, where 41 athletes out of 124 (one third of the whole) were 30 years old and even older, 13 people were over 35 years old. New names were also pronounced: the only Olympic champion trampolinist Ulad Hancharou (20 years), silver medalist wrestler Maryia Mamashuk (23) and the lifter Darya Naumova (21). But these names are very few.

The negative trend, according to which there is a decrease in the number of Olympians and Olympic prizes (124 participants and 9 awards is an anti-record in the history of independent Belarus) will persist unless the reserve training is improved.

3. Management failures became evident in personnel policy, in the use of financial flows and organization of pre-Olympic training. In particular, nine months prior to the Games the management of athletics formed an “A” group (20 athletes) which received priority funding, and a “B” group (31 people), consisting mainly of athletes of promise in sports. 13 people were selected for Rio from the “A” group and only 11 athletes from the “B” group. A dozen athletes, who had complied with the Olympic standards, were not included either in A or B groups. The only gold medal was won by 40-year-old Ivan Tsikhan, who had trained outside the national team. A similar situation is in the swimming team, where a bright exception is a 30-year-old Aliaksandra Herasimenia (a bronze medal).

4. Force majeure. On 16 July, the NOC of Belarus received from the International Federation of Rowing and Canoeing of the ICF a notice of disqualification of the Belarusian men's team for a period of one year for multiple violations of the anti-doping code. 3 Two days later, the court of arbitration for sport (CAS) received the claim of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, which appealed the decision of the ICF. But the arbitration court was overwhelmed by the cases of the Russians, and the quartet of Olympic champions Raman Petrushenka and Vadim Makhnev (winners of three Olympic Games), Alexander Bogdanovich and Andrei Bogdanovich (winners of two Olympics) – plus the world champions and European champions Arciom Kozyr, Aleh Urenia and Vitaly Belko were suspended from the participation in the Olympics. The NOC claim was considered only on 7 November 2016, and athletes were acquitted 77 days later – on 23 January 2017.

This story is evidence of the corruption processes in the ICF. Belarusian licenses in five programs were distributed in favor of athletes from Germany, Spain, Italy and Brazil. More than ten years the Belarusian rowing squadron was among the best in the world and none of the rowers was caught using illegal drugs. The decision on disqualification of the men's star team was baseless, and probably fabricated by competitors.

Metastases of criminality

In 2016, the center of the criminalization of the Belarusian sports moved to football. The director of the Department of Refereeing and Inspection of the Belarusian Football Federation (BFF), 52-year old Andrey Zhukov was accused of taking bribes six times over the appointment of referees to officiate the matches of the national championship. The total amount of bribes is small, USD 650. It could be assumed that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The court of the central district of Minsk sentenced Alexander Zhukov to 5 years of imprisonment in a colony with a reinforced regimen and confiscation of property. BFF declared Zhukov persona non grata for life.

The corrupt referees Andrei Saroka, Andrei Divakov, Oleg Murashkevich and Vadim Panchenko were exonerated because they voluntarily admitted the offence. The head coach of Smarhon club playing in Belarus’ A-league, ex-forward of the Belarusian football team Nikolay Ryndziuk was on trial. Security forces detained him immediately after the bribery of Zhukov in the amount of EUR 100.

The Head Department for Fighting against Organized Crime and Corruption revealed the facts of contractual matches of the football championship of Belarus with the participation of clubs of the Premier and A leagues. There were 20 defendants in the case. The organizers of these games are former athletes, Belarusian criminal authorities who had ties with Ukrainian customers. They received money from customers, made bets at bookmakers and bribed players and coaches. Rates on matches of the Premier league are USD 10–18 thousand, those of the A-league are USD 1–4 thousand. The Disciplinary Committee of the BFF imposed disciplinary sanctions on the clubs involved in contractual matches: Islach team (the Premier league) will begin the championship of Belarus–2017 with a result of minus 7 points, the Minsk team Luch (A-league) has minus 10 points, Ašmiany team (B-league) – minus 5 points.

The ex-director general of the basketball club Cmoki-Minsk Konstantin Sherewerja was sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment with confiscation of property for stealing money. He must pay back about USD 180 thousand in favor of the club.

The ex-director general of the hockey club Dynama-Minsk Maxim Subbotkin was sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment in a colony with a reinforced regimen with confiscation of property, although he had reimbursed the material damage to the club. A former general manager of the club, and formerly well-known journalist and editor, Vladimir Berezhkov was released after paying damages and an eight-month stay in prison.

Conclusion

The negative trends in the sports sector have accumulated over many years, but earlier it was possible to hide them due to professionals, raised by the Soviet sports school, and due to importing foreign players from Russia and Ukraine. Currently those who were born in the USSR are 40-year old athletes, and the ‘neighbors’ began to treat their human resources more assiduously. And yet, out of nine Olympic medals two belong to wrestlers, who arrived in Belarus from the North Caucasus.

The reserve group in most kinds of sports is aimed at getting immediate results instead of achieving results in the elite sports. The local successes of juniors are presented as national triumphs; they are honored at the highest level. Typically such athletes get lost on the way to the top-class sports.

Funding of the national teams is redundant, and their number is excessive – more than forty-five. As a result the received budgetary funds, including foreign currency, get scattered over all the different teams.

Criminalization of team sports indirectly affects the performance of the national teams. The national Belarusian soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and its coach Aleksander Khatskevich was dismissed. The hockey team barely kept its place in the elite division of the world championship and lost the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Minsk to the team of Slovenia.

Any change in the situation described would require redefining the concept of how to develop the sports sector, shifting investment and personnel flows to the reserve, upgrading the material base and ensuring effective doping-control, not only for athletes but also for the staff.