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Lukashenko treats sports 'like his own toy'

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The Olympics is over, but the story of one of its biggest dramas - that of the Belarus athlete who defected from her country during the Games - is not.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fled to Poland last week after she said that her coaches tried to force her to run a race against her will, then tried to force her onto a plane back to Belarus when she refused. On Monday (August 9) the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko said the 24-year old was, quote, "manipulated" by outside forces.

But Reuters has met another athlete, Konstantin Yakovlev, who also left Belarus with his family, this time for Ukraine - coincidentally on the same day as Tsimanouskaya's incident in Tokyo.

He's a professional handball player and coach. He says he's offering a rare snapshot into the sporting world they've left behind, and Lukashenko's role in it.

"He very much refers to sports like his own toy, and this toy began to resist him, so to speak. It started doing things he didn't like. During 26 years of rule, this man got used to all of his orders, any requests, must be executed. But here, it's not the case. It can't be this way. He's an illegitimate president. He lost the elections and this is obvious to everyone. And it's stupid to pretend this didn't happen."

The resistance that Yakovlev is referring to are athletes that joined the political opposition after the country's disputed election - and the violent crackdown on protests that followed.

Professional athletes are some of the most prominent figures to criticize Lukashenko.

Some of them have lost their jobs with the government or been kicked off national teams. Others were detained.

Yakovlev has a tattoo, of him in his uniform. The numbers 23 and 34 on the uniform are a reference to the article in Belarus's administrative code under which he was detained for two weeks. He says they were trumped up charges.

He also recalls a moment when his team won the national championship back in 2007. They were about to go on vacation, when instead they were told to stay put and put on a pretend practice session for a special visitor: it was Lukashenko.

"He came - we'd been waiting for him. It was a big show. We had to put on our full uniforms. Back then, we probably treated it like it was fine, but now I understand how weird it was. The sports minister - it was Grigorov if I'm not mistaken, came to us and said, 'Boys, please don't fail.' There were instructions about how we couldn't approach him, so many rules... In sports we've definitely made a huge step back, or even two, three, ten steps back. The consequence of it all is the Olympics... I think that the person was boiling over from injustice, from the stupidity of Belarusian bureaucrats."

Yakovlev says that when Lukashenko visited the team they had their photo taken with him, but weren't allowed to keep a copy because the president didn't like the way he looked in it.

The president was at one point the head of his country's national Olympic committee. That title is now held by his son, Viktor. Both were banned from attending the Games.

The president's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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