Belarus athletes watch Olympics from afar | DW | 08.08.2021

Andrei Krauchanka was a hero in his home country of Belarus. In a way, he still is. A decathlete, he won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but years later found himself in direct conflict with the country’s government.

He was one of 400 athletes who signed an open letter that will not have amused President Alexander Lukashenko. Signatories railed against the official results of the country’s 2020 presidential election and the violence unleashed on peaceful protesters by the president’s security forces.

Krauchanka was expelled from the Belarusian national team shortly after the letter was published. He was also jailed for 10 days.

Olympic medalist and national record holder Krauchanka joined other athletes calling for Lukashenko to resign

Watching the Olympics from a safe distance

Now, Krauchanka is watching the games from a safe distance. He, his wife Yana Maksimava and their small daughter, have resettled in western Germany’s industrial Ruhr region. It’s a long way from home but they tell DW they have visas and are clear-eyed about the fact that they won’t be going back until something fundamental changes.

The case of Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya moved the exiled couple. Yana is an athlete, too, successfully competing at the international level in both in the pentathlon and heptathlon through 2017. She did not make the team for the 2020 Tokyo games — how could she when the president’s son is the head of the National Olympic Committee?

“I’m not planning on returning to Belarus after all that has happened. I have a small daughter, I can’t take any risks. I’m one of those people that cannot remain silent,” she explained on Instagram. “When I was living and training in Belarus I couldn’t escape the situation. During that time I put everything on the line and kept pushing.” Still, she knew she could do nothing to change the balance of power, neither in Belarus as a whole or in the sports organizations the government controls. 

The couple had been thinking about leaving Belarus for quite some time. Then, Krauchanka says, the situation became too much for he and his wife to bear. “We had enough of walking and looking out. You get into the car — you watch out. You leave the entrance hall of your house — you watch out,” he told DW.

Krauchanka says they finally decided to leave after a close friend was arrested. “We are not going to be quiet. And in Belarus anyone who tells the truth gets repressed and imprisoned,” he says.

Yana Maksimava at the 2016 European Athletic Championships in Amsterdam

Yana Maksimava says she wants to compete again under the traditional red and white flag of Belarus

Belarus athletes want to compete again

Maksimava has continued to voice her opinion in private but also in public, as she did this week on Instagram. Still, she hopes to return to competition one day, under the traditional red and white flag of Belarus.

She spoke of her dream with DW: “I would like very much to continue training … I would like to win a medal in the winter European Athletics Indoor Championships — in heptathlon, in pentathlon, it doesn’t matter.” And if that doesn’t work? “If it doesn’t work out, life will go on, I will learn the language, will find a job.”

The couple’s fate is a “delicate” issue for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to deal with. Much like the case of shot putter Raven Saunders — in which disciplinary action for the political gestures the athlete made during the medal awards ceremony were dropped — IOC functionaries must find an approach that protects the fundamental rights that go with freedom and democracy without being ridiculous about it.

That, too, will determine whether Krauchanka and Maksimava can remain part of the Olympic family.

This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton

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