The defection of a Belarus sprinter sheds light on a dictator’s control.

The defection of a Belarus sprinter sheds light on a dictator’s control.


By Valerie Hopkins

When Belarusian Olympic officials went to the sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya’s room after she complained publicly about her coaches, the head of the national team made it clear they had an order for her to return home — and it came from the top.

That’s because, like much else in Belarus, sports is a family-run business. That family belongs to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has held sway with authoritarian power in the Eastern European country for 27 years.

Timanovskaya refused and defected in an Olympic scandal reminiscent of the Cold War. On Wednesday, she arrived in Poland, which had offered her and her husband political asylum.

Her situation, though, has shed light on an anachronistic dictatorship where no sphere of life can evade politics, and the ruling family increasingly cracks down ruthlessly on any whiff of dissent.

If not for the drama, it’s likely that few interested in the Olympics would have paid much attention to Belarus, which, unlike the old Soviet Union to which it once belonged, is hardly a gold medal powerhouse. But the defection has drawn global attention to yet another of the many ways the Lukashenko family wields its power: sports.

“For Mr. Lukashenko, sports is a propaganda tool just as it is for any dictator in any totalitarian system,” said Alexander Opeikin, the executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the government.

“Lukashenko always perceived the awards of athletes, medals of athletes at the Olympics, as his own medals.”

But if the use of sports as a propaganda tool has a long history, so do the embarrassing defections that have punctured the aura of invincibility carefully cultivated by authoritarian governments.

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