At Roland Garros,

The embarrassment was palpable on Sunday morning during the press briefing organized by Amélie Mauresmo to give an overview of the hot topics of the moment at Roland. Among these, the fake body of the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka who, two days earlier, had zapped the press conference after her victory in the third round against Kamilla Rakhimova, with the agreement of the organizers, like Sunday evening after her Round of 16 against Stephens. Asked about the organization of a press briefing in a small committee, with handpicked journalists, instead of the traditional post-match conference open to all journalists, the tournament director stutters, before the people in charge of com’ does end questions on the subject.

On the side of the player’s clan, they invoke the sacrosanct mental health of Sabalenka, a hot topic in modern tennis and which can be very practical for dodging angry questions. It must be said that since the start of the tournament, the Belarusian has seen press conferences that are agitated to say the least, especially after her match in the first round against the Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, who had refused to shake her hand and had undressed her to the summer about the war in Ukraine during his appearance in front of the media.

Since then, not a passage of the world number 2 is done without the theme being put back on the carpet. With, as a common thread, the desire of some journalists to know Sabalenka’s personal position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, supported by Belarus and its dictator President Alexander Lukashenko. She first attempted a verbal pirouette, explaining that “no one in this world, and that includes Russian and Belarusian athletes, supports this war”, before falling silent when a Ukrainian journalist asked her to position themselves in their own name.

Our colleague, obviously on a mission to extract Sabalenka’s confession, did not disassemble. “Here in 2020 you signed a letter to support Lukashenko as he tortured and beat protesters in the street. Then you celebrated the New Year with him. How can a potential world No. 1 support a dictator? “, she launched. Opposite, an angel passes.

An unfortunate precedent at the Tokyo Olympics

Therefore, how to analyze this positioning for the less cautious of the Belarusian player? Should this be seen as tacit support for President Lukashenko, and by extension support for the war in Ukraine, or is Sabalenka quite simply bound hand and foot, forced to spare the goat and the cabbage so as not to risk being hurt? punished by the regime once back in the bled? Without deciding the question, Lukas Aubin, specialist in the geopolitics of Russia and sport and author of Sportokratura under Vladimir Putinsomewhat resituates the Belarusian context, which is admittedly not conducive to free expression.

“We remember that during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Kristina Timanovskaia had taken too much freedom vis-à-vis the regime and had found herself in difficulty, we had summoned her to return to the country, swearing to her that she wouldn’t be worried. She had finally decided, for fear for her safety, not to return to Belarus and she had immediately obtained a humanitarian visa from Poland, he recalls. It shows the danger that awaits athletes who express themselves concretely against the regime. They are perceived as traitors who must be put out of harm’s way. It can range from a simple remonstrance to being arrested and locked up after a trumped-up trial. »

Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk (right) passes without a glance for Aryna Sabalenka after her French Open first-round defeat.
Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk (right) passes without a glance for Aryna Sabalenka after her French Open first-round defeat. – Javier Garcia//SIPA

When the regime imprisons dissident athletes

In 2020, after having remained in power despite his defeat in the presidential election, the so-called “last dictator in Europe” had violently repressed the demonstrations of opponents who demanded his departure and the holding of new elections. Nearly 2,000 athletes took part in the demonstrations and signed an open letter against state violence and to demand the departure of Lukashenko.

Among them are basketball player Yelena Leuchenka, world champion decathlete Andrei Krauchanka and Olympic swimming medalist Alexandra Herasimenia. “The first two were arrested and tortured in Belarusian prisons, which do not look like your European prisons and are closer to Soviet or Nazi concentration camps, the third was sentenced to 12 years in exile,” says Dzmitry Navosha , founder of Tribuna, the largest sports media in Belarus. In 2021, Amnesty International identified no less than 95 sportsmen and women locked up in government jails.

For a president who has declared sport a more powerful geopolitical tool than his own foreign ministry, it’s no surprise that dissident athletes are being harshly punished. In addition to forced exile, three-time Olympic medalist Alyaksandra Herasimenia, who has since become a swimming coach, saw her contracts with Belarusian swimming pools canceled after speaking out on social media to criticize the regime.

“I had the choice between speaking or keeping silent. We rent public swimming pools to organize our courses. All swimming pools are state owned in Belarus and so I realized that if I spoke out, my colleagues would suffer, as would the children. At first I didn’t know what to do, and after a few days I realized that I couldn’t keep silent,” she said in an interview with Amnesty International.

Lukashenko pampers his sports supporters

Conversely, athletes agreeing to walk hand in hand with Lukashenko are “pampered by the state and honored by society”, in the words of Heather McGill, a researcher specializing in Eastern Europe and Europe. Central Asia at Amnesty International. Among them, a certain Aryna Sabalenka. “In addition to the physical violence, one of the regime’s responses to the letter signed by the 2,000 athletes was to publish an ‘Athletes’ Open Letter to Lukashenko’, a letter signed by… Sabalenka. In addition, she has participated on several occasions in the dictator’s propaganda activities, we see her in particular in a clip of the government to celebrate the new 2021″, protests Anatol Kotau, head of the international department of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF ), created with the aim of supporting athletes persecuted by the regime.

Aware of holding with the world number 2 a leading international athlete, Lukashenko does not miss an opportunity to highlight “his favorite toy”, according to Anatol Kotau. “All her victories are immediately used by Lukashenko, who sends her letters of congratulations and never misses an opportunity to talk about her during her public speeches. If it really bothered her, she might say ‘please stop’. She wouldn’t risk anything, she’s too popular to be worried about. But she says nothing, which proves that she is on Lukashenko’s side, ”he says.

And this one continues: “We can see that she is trying to hide behind abstract words: All athletes are against the war, I cannot control the situation, etc. And don’t answer direct questions. Besides, she doesn’t even depend on Belarus, she travels abroad all year round and lives the rest of the time in Miami. What does she fear in this case? That we confiscate his goods and properties in the country? This is not a sufficient reason. So these are just personal reasons. She says she agrees to play under a neutral banner but she is not neutral at all. »