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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.
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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.

When Belarusian Olympic officials visited sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya’s bedroom after publicly complaining about her coaches, the national team leader made it clear that they had an order for her to return home – and it came from above.

This is because, like many other things in Belarus, sport is a family business. This family belongs to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has reigned over authoritarian power in this 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.

His situation, however, has brought to light an anachronistic dictatorship where no sphere of life can escape politics, and the ruling family increasingly ruthlessly suppresses any outburst of dissent.

Without the drama, it’s likely that few interested in the Olympics would have paid much attention to Belarus, which, unlike the former Soviet Union to which it once belonged, is hardly a medal powerhouse. ‘gold. But the defection has drawn worldwide attention to another of the many ways the Lukashenko family wields their power: sport.

“For Lukashenko, sport is a propaganda tool like any dictator in any totalitarian system,” said Alexander Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the government.

“Lukashenko has always seen athlete awards, athletes’ medals at the Olympics, as his own medals.”

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

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