On Friday, June 21, the European Olympics will open in Minsk, Belarus. The games are basically a mini-Olympics for European athletes, with competitors from 50 countries. The European Games will run through the end of the month, featuring more than 4,000 athletes in 15 sports. While not an official event of the International Olympic Committee, the European Olympic Committees, which coordinate the event, abide by the Olympic Charter and proselytize Olympic ideals, such as the value of sports competition between nations as a way to bring the world closer together.
That’s what they preach, but the European Olympics in Minsk are also a glaring example of sportwashing: using sports and the feel-good spirit created by athletes to distract from human-rights violations and serious social problems in the host city or country.
In recent years, the European Games have gravitated towards dictatorships like a magnet seeking steel. The first installation occurred in 2015 in Baku, Azerbaijan, where at the opening ceremony Lady Gaga performed John Lennon’s “Imagine” in front of power brokers like International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who has run the country since 2003.
While Gaga crooned “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” around 80 political prisoners languished in the brutal Azerbaijani prisons. This was hardly a secret. A 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described President Ilham Aliyev as someone who has taken on “a mafia-like role” in ruling the country. Alluding to The Godfather, it described Aliyev as “Michael [Corleone] on the outside, Sonny on the inside.” Journalists and activists are routinely jailed on bogus charges, but that didn’t matter to Olympic honchos keen to throw a mini-me mega-event.
The Olympic tradition of conspicuous tolerance for jaw-dropping intolerance continues this week in Minsk where, according to Human Rights Watch, “Civil society activists, lawyers, rights groups, and independent media continued to face government harassment and pressure. Authorities prosecuted dozens of journalists on a variety of arbitrary grounds and adopted new restrictions on internet freedoms.”
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, has a horrific human-rights record. Opposition politicians have been disappeared, activists brutally repressed, and arbitrary detention is commonplace. Even the George W. Bush administration dubbed Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator.” Belarus is the only country in Europe that still clings to the death penalty. Executions take the form of being shot in the head, and the government often doesn’t even bother to inform families when their loved ones were executed or where they were buried. Back in 2012, Britain even denied a visa to Belarusian President Lukashenko who wanted to attend the London Summer Olympics.
Lukashenko knows the value of sports mega-events for autocrats and authoritarians. “Belarus is not a superpower,” he said, “but we are paying a lot of attention to sport.” Events like the European Games create a prime opportunity to appear presidential and important under the glare of the global media spotlight. Sports mega-events are photo-op-o-ramas that dictators can convert into political legitimacy.
Lukashenko won’t be the only dubious character in attendance. Turns out disgraced “self-suspended” IOC member Patrick Hickey, who headed the European Olympic Committees from 2006 through 2017, has accepted an invitation to attend the Games. Never mind that his suspension from the IOC emerged after allegations of ticket-touting at the Rio 2016 Olympics. After being yanked from his posh Rio hotel room during the Rio Games, Hickey faced an array of charges, from money-laundering and criminal association to theft and tax evasion. He claims he’s innocent (but of course).
Holding the European Olympics in Minsk makes a mockery of the Olympic Charter, which states that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
The best hope for the future of international sports in general and the European Games in particular is to shine a light on both the hypocrisy on display and these abuses of sports in the name of holding up the aspirations of tyrants.