David Owen

I hope that events in Belarus are giving sports leaders, beset as they are with other problems, pause for thought.

Only last year, this country where violent clashes between police and protestors have been widely reported in the wake of a Presidential election in which long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko appears to have secured a controversial victory, hosted the second European Games. 

Bluntly, you have to ask yourself whether it is in the best interests of the Sports Movement to be associating itself with regimes such as Lukashenko's. 

I should make clear at the outset that I claim little detailed knowledge about this landlocked east European country sandwiched between Poland and Russia.

I have paid one short visit to the capital, Minsk, on assignment for this website, and was treated very well.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's sporting gear is on display at the NOC Museum in Minsk ©ITG
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's sporting gear is on display at the NOC Museum in Minsk ©ITG

But there was a moment even during that visit which, while also faintly comical, had my journalistic antennae twitching.

This came when I set eyes on a presentation case containing a selection of Lukashenko's sports gear at the National Olympic Committee Museum.

Now I have no reason to doubt that the 65-year-old President genuinely loves sport.

The world is, moreover, full of middle-aged men who take evident pride in their sporting prowess, real or imagined.

I should know: I am one.

But I like to think that if I ever manoeuvred myself into a position as powerful as that Lukashenko has enjoyed for the past quarter of a century or so in his home country, I would refrain from sticking my cricket whites on display next to the Ashes urn at the Lord's museum.

Indeed, I like to think that, if anything, I would use my powers to ensure that this did not happen.

To return to my initial question, as far as I know, Minsk 2019 passed off technically without a hitch; I saw for myself how good the venues were.

I also get the argument which holds that, in order to be universal, international sport must strive to be politically neutral, even apolitical.

And while I do not think it always holds water, I accept that the doctrine of constructive engagement, much heard in the run-up to Beijing 2008, cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.

But come on: without veering into moralistic posturing, is it really for the greater good of European sport to have gone so publicly into partnership with Belarus's long-time rulers?

While Lukashenko got an enhanced sheen of international respectability, not to mention second place in the medals table, out of the deal, sport got, well, what exactly?

There have been protests in Minsk following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko ©Getty Images
There have been protests in Minsk following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko ©Getty Images

A competent host for a relatively low-key multi-sports event which, in an era of proliferating attractions that COVID-19 may well have brought to an abrupt end, was not exactly top of the average sports fan's "must-not-miss" list.

It is one thing for people like me to inveigh against sports officials for designating their events to places whose leaders we might have our doubts about.

But it is altogether more difficult to come up with a prescription for avoiding this that does not fall foul of the charge of imposing arrogant liberal assumptions on parts of the world that might see things differently or even risk kick-starting a new age of 1980s-style boycotts.

After all, bidding contests for major events tend to be run nowadays with considerable sophistication.

Irrespective of a bidding nation's politics, it is unlikely to emerge on top without meeting a long list of technical criteria.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that administrations with reputational issues of one kind or another are likely to place a particularly high value on the prestige that hosting a big international event can confer.

This may incentivise them to make every effort to excel at the bidding process.

Unless overtly political assessments are made by the judge and jury in the contest, it could thus be very difficult to deny them the prize they are seeking.

It is also axiomatic that places where people are afraid to speak their minds are unlikely to spawn Nolympic-style protest movements.

It is worth underlining too that in those halcyon pre-COVID days when the number of sports events was multiplying year by year, not every event organiser had the luxury of oodles of choice when it came to prospective hosts.

Minsk hosted the second European Games last year ©Getty Images
Minsk hosted the second European Games last year ©Getty Images

In this context, I would like to make one small suggestion: sports officials should insert a standard clause in host selection protocols stating that countries which have had the same leader for more than, say, 15 years are excluded from hosting.

After all, if such inordinately long Presidencies are bad for sports bodies, regardless of the calibre of the President, as is increasingly accepted, one might feel justified in concluding they are bad for countries too.

I do not pretend such a step would be foolproof.

It might involve making judgements as to whether, for the sake of argument, the Queen of England rules her country in the same way that Haile Selassie used to rule his.

It might also have trouble both with the sort of role-switching manoeuvre in which Russia's Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev once indulged, and with countries ruled for long stretches by different members of the same family.

But it would be a start, as well as an unimpeachably apolitical solution, since it could in theory apply to anyone.

Whether sports leaders will be prepared to contemplate restricting the field of potential hosts in this way is another matter.