Sports during a crisis

Barys Tasman


The crisis in the economy immediately affected the sports industry, one of the largest expense items of the Belarusian budget. Investments in youth and mass sports, as well as in football declined significantly. The situation is aggravated by corruption, doping and other scandals and managerial confusion. The most positive outcomes are associated with the global leadership of Belarusian rowing and canoeing and a recovering athletics sector.


Golden system

Perhaps the only kind of sports in the country which regularly brings medals at global and continental championships is rowing and canoeing. The head coach of the national team Uladzimir Shantarovich has created a system of upbringing world-class athletes. The elements of the system are youth sports schools, Olympic reserve school, junior and senior national teams, a medical group and the problem laboratory of Homiel University that investigates physiological abilities of athletes. Shantarovich gets appropriate funding for those professionals who ensure high performance. At the 2004 Olympics only one Belarussian crew got on the podium, while during the 2008–2012 Olympics there had been three crews annually.

In the 2015 season the Belarusian kayakers and canoeists emerged triumphantly in three top tournaments: at the European Games in Baku the Belarusians got on the podium five times (three gold and two bronze medals), at the European Championship in Račice, Czech Republic, Belarus won eleven medals (4 gold – 3 silver – 4 bronze), at the World Forum in Milan Belarus got ten medals (5 gold – 2 silver – 3 bronze). In Italy, Shantarovich’s squadron achieved its first team victory at the World Championships, having left behind traditional leaders of rowing and canoeing from Germany and Hungary. A real prima donna, 27-year-old Maryna Litvinchuk won 9 gold medals at top tournaments.

Movements at the ‘Royal’ front

Athletics has the biggest Olympic fund – 47 disciplines as befits the queen of sports. Belarusian athletics had bad luck with managers: in 2003–2014 it was headed by officials who drove the industry into a deep crisis. At the World Championships of 2009, 2013 and at the 2012 Olympics, the Belarusians did not win any medals, and in London no Belarusian athlete could rise higher than the seventh place. At the same time, anti-doping investigations deprived Ivan Tsikhan, Andrei Mikhnevich, Nadzeya Ostapchuk and Katsiaryna Artsukh of Olympic and world medals. 37-year-old Vadim Devyatovskiy, Deputy of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus and in the recent past an Olympic winner in hammer throwing became the Chairman of the Federation in 2014. He got rid of the warring clans, gathered a new team of managers, and found investment for specific projects. The most popular was the program “300 talents for the queen”, which tested about 200 thousand pupils of primary schools throughout Belarus. 300 gifted children first were invited to a one-week camp, and then to the New Year’s Eve Finale with the participation of the President of Belarus.

The national championship was first held at the level of international top tournament. Mr. Devyatovskiy found sponsors who financed prizes not only for winners but also for runners-up. In total, more than a hundred athletes received material rewards, which had never happened before.

The results of the beneficial changes were medals at the World Championship in Beijing: Maryna Arzamasava won the title in the most competitive distance of 800 meters, Alina Talay won the bronze medal in the hurdle race of 100 meters. Another significant event was the Minsk application for the indoors European championship in 2019.

There are a number of problems in athletics but the changes that have started are encouraging.

Hello from Olga Korbut

Long ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Belarusians Alena Valchetskaya, Larysa Petrik and Tamara Lazakovich were the top stars at the firmament of world gymnastics. But Olga Korbut, also known as The Sparrow from Minsk, overshadowed all. Her coach, Renald Knysh invented the gymnastics of tomorrow. A 17-year-old Belarusian, who won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, became the most popular person of the year. In America, Europe, Australia a gymnastic boom started, “Olga Korbut’s clubs” were opened everywhere… Last time a Belarusian gymnast (Svetlana Boginskaya) got on the Olympic podium was in 1992, almost a quarter of a century ago.

In 2015 Belarus sent ordinary American gymnasts, Alaina Kwan and Kylie Dickson, to the World Championships for Olympic licenses. In Minsk they hastily received Belarusian citizenship. At the world championship the new Belarusians took 73rd and 75th places. Antonina Koshel, under whose authority women’s gymnastics has systematically degraded since the mid-1990s, commented this in the following way: “It is very important to understand the situation and represent it correctly. The task was performed and we got the right to fight for a license. We did all we could. Our young gymnasts would not be able to overcome this threshold. They usually win 48–49 points. In Glasgow the ‘passing’ score was 50.3. American girls scored more than 51. And one should not take into account the places: there was no way we could take the strongest sportswomen from the United States. All the best are in teams of other countries. Count the girls cost almost nothing to us”.1

Athletes from the North Caucasus represented Belarus in freestyle wrestling at the 2015 World Championships, which earlier had been famous due to a Belarusian athlete with the name of Alexander Medved. They didn’t get any medals or Olympic licenses. Is this the homespun truth of the Ministry of Sports: to close low-budget children’s and young person’s sports schools and to purposefully form an expensive national team at the cost of third-rate mercenaries?

With the shield or on the shield?

For Belarusian hockey the 2014/2015 season was successful. Minsk Dinamo took the 9th place in the championship of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) among 28 clubs (in the Western Conference it took the 5th place out of 14). Last season Dinamo finished only 26th in the overall standings and as the last, 14th, in the Conference. The leap of 17 places in the table did not pass unnoticed for hockey fans. At the eleven games out of thirty, tribunes of Minsk-Arena with a capacity of 15 thousand seats gathered full house and an average attendance of home matches of Dinamo (14 120 spectators per match, the attendance is 93.6%) dominated in the KHL and came second in Europe after the Swiss Bern (16 164 spectators per match, the attendance rate is 94.4%). The success of Dinamo was ascribed to the new General Manager Uladzimir Berazhkou, who used to head the most popular Belarusian sports newspaper Pressball for more than twenty years.

At the World Championships in the Czech Republic the national team of Belarus under the direction of Canadian coach Dave Lewis made it to the top eight teams for the second year in a row, having taken the 7th place. The value of this achievement is higher than last year, as the world leading team rosters were significantly weakened at the post-Olympic tournament in Minsk. Besides, the Belarusians beat the U.S. national team – 5:2 for the first time. The youth national team (the youth team of Minsk Dinamo) under the direction of Pavel Perepekhin after eight years in the second division of the World Championship got the right to play in the Premier League.

However, after the arrest of the directors of last year’s success (see below) Dinamo dropped from the 9th place to the 18th in 2015/2016 and did not get into the play-off. Match attendance fell by 20%, the occupancy rate of Minsk-Arena dropped to 76%. The national youth team miserably tumbled out of the elite at the World Cup.

Reduction as optimization

Sports officials gave a new meaning to the term optimization – that is ‘reduction’. From 2007 to 2015 in the framework of optimization 56 children’s and young person’s sports schools (CYPSS) were closed in the country – from 451 schools remained 395; the number of students there decreased by 35 thousand – from 193 to 158 thousand. These data were presented at the board meeting of the Ministry of Sports and Tourism of Belarus. Other 120 schools are on the verge of closure.

At the same time, the availability of sporting equipment of CYPSS is 11–20%. As the vice-president of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, assistant to the president on physical culture, sports and tourism Maxim Ryzhenkov noted “before closing, we have to look at what we have done for them to work efficiently.” However, what is said afterwards has little weight.

Let us see how the optimization of the Ministry affected the quality of training of sports reserve. Did the number of sports stars and medals increase? For comparison, we will take the odd-numbered years to have an equal number of world cups (see Table 1).

Year Gold medal Silver medal Bronze medal Total
2003 5 9 14 28
2005 5 5 9 19
2007 6 6 4 16
2009 4 4 4 12
2011 4 7 8 19
2013 2 2 7 11
2015 5 1 7 13
Table 1. Medals of Belarusian athletes at the World Championships, 2003–2011 (Olympic disciplines)

As can be seen, the number of medals won at world championships by Belarusian athletes during the last 12 years has decreased approximately twofold – from 28 to 13. The 2015 season was quite successful regarding the number of gold medals won in the Olympic disciplines: five medals, which is close to the maximum. Two medals were won by rowers (women’s kayak fours and a canoeist, Artiom Kozyr), one medal went to a runner Maryna Arzamasava, one more – to cyclist Vasily Kiriyenka, who has performed for many years abroad, and the last went to bodybuilder Vadzim Straltsou.

In rowing and rhythmic gymnastics the mechanism of upbringing a new sports shift is created. But in most kinds of sports the situation is deplorable.

Who will go to Rio?

In the Olympic direction the strategy of the Ministry of Sports is failing. At the board bringing the end of 2015, leaders of the sphere stated different numbers of won licenses, ranging from 79 to 81. Other estimates show that at that time there were around seventy licenses. According to Maxim Ryzhenkov, eight years ago we had 160 licenses and four years ago 138.

The draw of the Olympic licenses will continue until mid-July. Now, however, they will be more expensive in the literal sense: it is necessary to send hundreds of athletes, coaches and officials to qualifying competitions around the world with ambiguous results. In the sports aspect there is also an imbalance: the peak of athletes’ strength will be aimed at winning licenses instead of winning the Olympics.

The number of Olympians defines the size of the staff – managers, coaches, medical workers. But is it really necessary to throw money at the Olympic Games in the middle of an economic crisis?

Progressive criminalization

Corruption scandals in the Belarusian sports are not a surprise to anyone. Budget funding provides swindlers with diverse opportunities of embezzlement. Criminal schemes often involve high ranking officials. In 2014 Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism, Sergey Nered was sentenced to five years “for abuse of office” while defining the winners of a tender for the supply of sports equipment.

In 2015, Natalia Kraiko, Director of the Republican Center of Olympic Training in chess and checkers was also handed a sentence. The total damage she caused to the state was USD 20 000. It is interesting that Kraiko is an arbitrator of Sports arbitration court of the Republic of Belarus, where she oversees the “Contractual relations in the sports sphere, legal support of procedure of organization and carrying out of competitions”.

A former CEO of Minsk basketball club Cmoki – Konstantin Sherewerya was accused of embezzling BYR 7.2 billion in the period from 2010 to 2014. According to the prosecutor, Sherewerya took bank cards from employees of the club, withdrew money and gave to his employees only that sum of money which had previously been orally agreed upon. Players and coaches signed a confidential agreement to the contract, but the sum was written down into the contract by Sherewerya later, when the signature of the employee had already been in the document. Finally, the hockey success was supplemented by a series of arrests and resignations. In July, General Director of Minsk Dinamo, Maxim Subotkin, was sent to a detention center, three weeks later the General Manager of the HC Uladzimir Berazhkou joined him. In September Pavel Perepekhin was fired from the national youth team, in October he was followed by the head coach of Dinamo Lyubomir Pakovich.

Maxim Subotkin was charged with creating private limited company Marketing HC Dinamo, an affiliated structure where he imitated the constituent Assembly, assigned himself a monthly salary of BYR 45 million and on behalf of the club signed fictitious contract for consulting services in the amount of BYR 400 million. Subotkin’s actions were qualified under article 426 part 3 of the criminal procedure code (Abuse of powers or self-dealing), article 424 part 3 (Malfeasance in office or official misconduct); article 210 part 4 (Embezzlement). However, the Patriarchal Exarch of all Belarus Pavel awarded Maxim Subotkin (who was at that time in remand prison) with the diploma For diligent work to the glory of the Holy Church and the Fatherland. The award was given in absentia, in Babrujsk temple of the Holy Spirit.

Uladzimir Berazhkou, according to investigators, fictitiously employed an acquaintance, from whose bank card he took money – more than BYR 1 billion in total. Berazhkou recognized the violation and reimbursed the sum of money he had taken, however, he insisted that he did not appropriate the money but spent it for the benefit of the club, in particular on hospitality expenses.

An unprecedented campaign in support of Berazhkou started in the country. His colleagues and hundreds of thousands of readers of Pressball newspaper know Berazhkou as a talented journalist and editor, fighter against corruption in the sports. In September, several influential figures asked President Lukashenko to release Berazhkou before trial from jail under personal guarantees, and in October, players and coaches of HC Dinamo wrote a letter to the president with the same request. The pre-trial restriction, however, was not changed.


The economic crisis ‘shifted’ the sports industry to the position of the leaning tower of Pisa. Adherence to common good aims of optimization and cost efficiency in the field of sports resulted in the sequestration of children’s and young person’s sports schools. Despite the fact that the preparation of the reserve was the Achilles heel of the industry. This could not but impact the level of elite sports. To cover the deficit of athletes of the international class the Ministry of Sports purposefully imported foreign players, mostly from Russia (wrestlers, biathletes, skiers, etc.) and North America (hockey, gymnastics). In an extraordinary manner they got Belarusian citizenship, which is granted by the decision of the head of state.

The doping problem is still acute. After the World Cup in Houston Belarusian weightlifters Alexander Venskel and Anastasia Novikava were disqualified, the latter will be disqualified for a lifelong period. In the list of offenders there are six athletes, three bicycle racers, swimmers, wrestlers and handball players.

Funding of national teams remains high. When assessing the needs of their funding their efficiency is not taken into account, unlike children’s and young person’s sports schools. The Minister of Sports and Tourism Alexander Shamko stated that at the Olympic Games in Rio 15 kinds of sports can potentially bring medals for Belarus, while there are around 50 national teams. It can be assumed that the upbringing of top-class athletes is not the only function of the national teams. Perhaps it is equally important to extract monetary funds from the state budget. In view of the priority of budget financing of the sports industry it is unreal to expect that in the near future the crisis will be overcome.