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Society, World 26/10/2016

Sebastian Coe and a tale of two dictators

The world's greatest sports blazer in Belarus and Baku

On Friday 21 October, the European Olympic Committee announced that the second edition of the European Olympic Games will be held in Belarus. The reaction of most was one of mild surprise: the inaugural games in Baku, Azerbaijan had brought controversy as the regime used the games to "sportswash" its reputation as a feudal basketcase run as the personal fiefdom of President Aliyev. The fallout from weeks of negative publicity (including from former political prisoners) about European athletes being used as props for a dictatorship led to prospective 2019 hosts, the Netherlands, deciding they could no longer be associated with the next games and pulled out.

But if the European Games were ever to have a home, it would be Minsk: for the relationship between Belarus’s brutal dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Pat Hickey, the head of the European Olympic Committee, and Sebastian Coe, head of the International Amateur Athletic Federation and president of the British Olympic Association, typifies everything that is wrong with modern sports administration.

In April, Lord Coe, a British parliamentarian, met Lukashenko during the European Athletics CEO Conference in Minsk.

“The importance of trust” was at the heart of that conference, the IAAF reported.

According to Belarusian reports, Lukashenko told Coe that Belarus would soon be ready for top international tournaments, boasting that the national football stadium was being refurbished for athletics.

Lukashenko commented: “If we are fair in sport, I am confident that Belarusian athletes will make themselves even more noticed on the global arena, the Olympic Games. I tell this because I know your stance and commitment to honesty in sport. You can rely on Belarus in this respect,” adding that he had always admired Coe, even when he competed against Soviet athletes.

Coe, in turn, praised Lukashenko enthusiastically. The dictator’s office reported Lord Coe as saying:  “It is a pleasure to meet with such a high-ranking official who not only understands sport very well but also understands athletics. It is also good that we have similar opinions about the role of sport.”

Coe also “expressed readiness to do his best to help Belarus regularly host international track and field competitions”, Lukashenko’s administration stated.

Although Coe does his best to pay court to the last dictator in Europe, it is Pat Hickey who Lukashenko truly honours. And the feelings are mutual.

In case you missed it, Irishman Hickey is currently in Brazil, awaiting trial for ticket touting at the Rio Olympics.

Hickey has run the  European Olympic Committee for years, through a simple tactic of promising the world to minor sports and minor nations. As a case in point, in 2008, Hickey awarded Lukashenko a special prize for “For Outstanding Contribution to the Olympic Movement” in 2008.

In 2015, Lukashenko returned the favour to Hickey, awarding him the Medal of the Order of Francysk Skaryna, one of Belarus's highest honours, for his services to the Belarusian Olympic movement.

Belarus being a Soviet dictatorship in all but name, Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1996, is, inevitably, also head of the country’s Olympic Committee.

In September 2011, Hickey and Lukashenko had discussed the possibility of Belarus hosting the inaugural games: this at a point when democratic politician Andrei Sannikov, who had had the temerity to stand against Lukashenko in the December 2010 elections, was still in jail, along with dozens of other activists and journalists. The post-election clampdown was marked by allegations of torture.

According to state sources, Hickey said the EOC was “amazed at the conditions which have been created for athletes in the country, great architectural design and beautiful finish of these facilities.”
At the same European Olympics conference in Minsk on Friday where Belarus was granted the 2019 games, the European Olympic Committee delivered a direct snub to the Brazilian authorities, with the acting president of the EOC Janez Kocijancic announcing that the EOC believed Hickey was “not guilty of any criminal offence” while a screen displayed a huge picture of Hickey benevolently staring down at the massed blazers below, accompanied by the legend “The warmest wish is that...he can return to his family and Olympic duties as soon as possible”.
Image: Twitter

The message is abysmally clear: we are the Olympic blazers, and we are more important than your petty concerns about corruption.

When Sebastian Coe was being touted to take over as head of international athletics, the line was clear: the English-speaking nations would take back sport, leading the tarnished brand on a return to Corinthian values. Yet Coe has actively encouraged the dictator’s jamboree that is the European Olympic Games, to the extent that CSM, the communications company he chairs, steered Azerbaijan’s bid to host the first games from the beginning. Curiously, all references to the games appear to have been deleted from Chime’s website.

Sebastian Coe’s courting of Alexander Lukashenko is just further proof that he is not part of the solution for world sport: he is part of the problem.

Editor’s note: 89up, the publisher of Little Atoms, worked with the Sport For Rights Campaign to highlight human rights abuses in Azerbaijan during the 2015 European Games in Baku

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.