8 December 2020, 16:15 | Viktoryia Kavalchuk, TUT.BY
Anatol Kotau, ex-secretary general of the Belarusian NOC who now heads the external relations department of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, commented on the introduction of IOC sanctions for TUT.BY. What amount of money will be missed by the NOC of Belarus due to suspended funding, will our team compete at the Olympics under a neutral flag and why the issue of lifting sanctions directly depends on the political situation in the country – these are the problems addressed in a big interview with SPORT.TUT.BY journalist Victoryia Kavalchuk.
It’s hard to say that sports are outside politics. Because everything has turned into politics in Belarus.
What were the key points for the International Olympic Committee when adopting sanctions against the NOC of Belarus?
This decision has been maturing in the IOC for a long time. Back in late September – early October this year, the International Olympic Committee paid attention to the fact that something was wrong with Belarusian sports in 2020. They were communicating with athletes, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, as well as with the Belarusian NOC.
The International Olympic Committee requested information [about the situation in our sports] from the NOC of Belarus, but they traditionally replied that everything is OK in Belarusian sports, everything is being done in accordance with the law. The NOC disregarded the fact that the IOC had actually announced the start of investigation into the situation in our sports.
So as early as October the National Olympic Committee of Belarus recieved alarming signs that it might not end well if the approaches to the protection of Belarusian athletes (primarily from discrimination on political grounds) were not changed. Nevertheless, these signs were ignored.
What was the study of the situation in Belarusian sports by the International Olympic Committee like?
Just last week, the IOC held another round of correspondence with Belarusian athletes. On Friday, 4 December, the IOC special commission received detailed explanations from a number of athletes on the situation with scholarship deprivation, exclusion from the national teams and Olympic prospects in Tokyo 2021 and Beijing 2022.
Which athletes spoke to the IOC commission?
Given that the IOC had selected respondents for communication itself and did not publish these names, it would not be correct for the foundation to talk about the internal procedures of the International Olympic Committee. But it’s easy to guess that most of the speakers are those athletes who had signed the letter to the IOC.
Did the IOC also consider the version of the Belarusian NOC?
Yes, the NOC of Belarus had also sent its own explanation on the above issues to the International Olympic Committee. The Foundation has not been informed about its contents but most likely it all came down again to the fact that sports industry in Belarus operates in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus.
However, the findings of international organizations, including those within the framework of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, indicate that legislation is not working in Belarus. The country is in a state of legal default when there is either no law or it works one way only.
In this situation, it was difficult to understand what the NOC of Belarus was hoping for, referring to such unconvincing things and turning a blind eye to the actual state of affairs. I mean the situation when, on the one hand, athletes who have signed the letter against violence and in favour of new elections are discriminated against, and on the other hand, numerous people including fake characters are being forced to sign the letter in support of some kind of abstract stability. Today it is difficult to say that sports are outside politics, because everything has turned into politics in Belarus.
So the IOC’s decision to impose sanctions has been backed by its own investigation?
Yes, it was not a instantaneous decision, but a long process that culminated on 7 December at the meeting of the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee.
Now everything will depend not on the actions of the NOC of Belarus, but on the overall situation in the country.
What are further options for the NOC of Belarus and our athletes ?
Everything will now depend not on the actions of the NOC of Belarus, but rather on the overall situation in the country. It is difficult to expect that the situation in Belarusian sports will become an island of stability, justice and democracy while there is total lawlessness around.
It is difficult to imagine what the NOC must do now to protect the rights of athletes who have suffered for their political views. Theoretically of course everything can be rewound: compensating Yelena Leuchanka for the days spent in Akrestsina, restoring the reduced scholarship to Volha Mazuronak, taking back track athlete Darya Barysevich … Formally, all this is possible.
But then a crystal dome will have to be built over the Belarusian athletes who do not hesitate to express dissatisfaction with what is happening in the country, so that law enforcers bypass them without beating, arresting or issuing fines.
I do not really believe though that it is possible to place the 1,500 people who had signed the letter against violence under this dome, and to write out a letter of protection for all of them.
That is why further development of the situation will depend on the events in the country as a whole.
What can contribute to the lifting of sanctions?
If certain people realize that beating and torturing your own citizens is bad and you need to apologize at the very least (and investigate everything that has been done over the past four months if your apologies are real), then, quite possibly, the sanctions can be lifted. But so far, nothing indicates that this scenario is not fantasy.
At the moment, tough but preliminary sanctions have been applied against the leadership of the National Olympic Committee, and additional funding for the NOC through various Olympic solidarity programs has been suspended .
What are the chances for the Belarusian national team to compete under a neutral flag or to be banned from the Olympic Games?
If everything remains as it is in Belarus or becomes even worse, the pressure from the International Olympic Committee is likely to increase.
Unfortunately, performance under a neutral flag is a very likely prospect looming in front of the Belarusian national Olympic team who are preparing for the Tokyo Games.
Banning the team from the Olympics is an ultimate sanction. We do not want our athletes to be denied entry, to compete under a neutral flag or in a refugee team. But every day it is becoming more and more likely. And now this does not even depends on the NOC, but on the country’s top authorities.
We continue cutting the branch we are sitting on. But apparently the NOC of Belarus does not really need money and it can be found somewhere in the budget.
The IOC has announced the suspension of funding for the NOC. Let’s take a closer look at this issue. Where did the money allocated by the International Olympic Committee use to go?
The IOC provided both targeted assistance to athletes and grant funding to NOCs for certain programs.
Targeted grants to athletes who are preparing for the Olympic Games and receiving IOC scholarships will not be suspended. But the income of other funds that could be used for developing the Olympic movement in Belarus will be curtailed.
What does the rather vague wording “development of the Olympic movement” include?
Every four years the IOC approves a list of programs for which additional grant applications can be submitted. It can be a project on Olympic education, support for national teams, and advanced training of coaches. There is an annual grant to support the administrative activities of the National Olympic Committee. NOCs may or may not apply for such funding, this is voluntary.
In very active years (usually the years of the Olympic Games), the amount of funding attracted through the IOC could reach a million dollars. The figure was so high because the NOC also received compensation for the participation of the national team in the Olympics.
If applications for these programs are not submitted, assistance from the IOC may come down to a hundred thousand dollars.
In any case, now it is hard to count on any considerable investments in the development of Belarusian sports. Funding for the mentioned programs is currently suspended. “We continue cutting the branch we are sitting on. But apparently the NOC of Belarus does not really need money and it can be found somewhere in the budget.”
What did targeted financing of athletes look like before: the IOC sent money to the NOC, and then the latter directed it to the athlete?
It all depends on the program. Approximately two years before the Olympic Games you can apply for funding for an individual athlete who has a serious chance of preparing and performing at the Olympics.
These athletes received funds from the IOC to cover training location, coach remuneration, pharmacological and medical support, and their own scholarships. The IOC sent this money to the NOC, and the latter directed it to the athletes.
Will the targeted support scheme for athletes be still implemented through the NOC, or will the IOC begin to channel money directly to athletes?
I have never heard of the International Olympic Committee supporting athletes in any other way, except through the NOC – bar the refugee team. But hopefully we don’t get to this.
Targeted assistance to athletes will continue to be provided through the National Olympic Committee of Belarus. But the NOC cannot spend this money anywhere except for the stated goals, because there is a strict system of accountability to the IOC and audit.
Sports have always been used in Belarus as propaganda. And this is a serious blow.
At the moment, members of the NOC executive committee are under sanctions. If they leave the executive committee will the sanctions be automatically lifted?
Yes, because the IOC did not impose personal bans, but functional ones. That is, the sanctions were not introduced against Liubov Charkashyna, for example, but rather against Liubov Charkashyna as NOC executive committee member.
That is, Liubov Charkashyna may get to the Games in Tokyo as senior coach of the Belarusian national team if she ceases to be a member of the executive committee?
Theoretically, yes! The IOC announced that the Olympic meeting is to be held in Belarus in February, where new management will be elected and a new NOC executive committee will be formed.
Do you think the announced sanctions will really complicate the work of the Belarusian NOC or are they more of a formality?
Apart from the financial component, the sanctions inflict very serious damage to the image.
The sanctions will affect the participation of Belarus in events organized by the IOC, the European Olympic Committee, and international federations. Even if the Belarusian delegation is invited to these events, it will be on a completely different level. It will also affect foreign sponsorship issues, although this is a less relevant story for us.
Finally, there may be restraints on holding major sporting events in Olympic sports in Belarus. High performance sports have always been used in our country as propaganda. And now it has received a serious blow to its evaluation from the top organization in international sports.