In January, Belarus hosted the Christmas amateur ice hockey tournament, where the winner gets a presidential prize. President of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his 15-year-old son Mikalai played in the team Belarus. Ironically, the team of Lukashenka won for the 13th time out of 16 series. Lukashenka’s hobby presented as the country’s favourite sport has already become a joking matter. He is not ready to accept failures either in politics or sports.
Every year the Christmas tournament attracts more and more participants. Besides the veteran teams of Russia, Finland, Germany, this time the clubs of the United Arab Emirates, China, and even combined team of the Baltics and the Balkans participated.
As a rule, a tournament is for amateurs. But sometimes, it includes veterans who have completed a professional career but do not want to give up the favourite game.
However, it is the opposite in the national team of Belarus: along with senior and junior Lukashenkas, there are the players who recently completed a professional career or continue to play in professional clubs. The team of the president, unlike his opponents, trains regularly and participates in amateur competitions in the country. Not surprisingly, they won 13 tournaments out of 16.
The budget of the Christmas ice entertainment for Lukashenka is never announced. It must cost serious money as Belarus provides guests with accommodation, meals, and a cultural program. Over the years, journalists have been trying to get approximate information from the organizers of the competition, but haven’t succeeded yet.
Formally, the tournament is organized by the presidential sports club; Ice Hockey Federation of Belarus, the Belarusian Ministry of Sports and the City of Minsk. However, the main sponsors are large firms and banks such as Belaruskali and Belarusbank.
Ice hockey in Belarus was not very popular during Soviet times. In the last years of the USSR, there existed only two professional teams: Dinamo was one of the outsiders of the major league, and Hrodna ShVSM-Progress was playing in the second league.
After coming to power, Lukashenka made hockey his favourite entertainment. Even in the second half of the 90s, despite the difficult economic situation in the country, public money was used for building palaces and creating hockey clubs. Whereas the first national championships included 5-6 teams, the number has increased to 30 this year.
At the same time, championship games in many cities barely gather a few hundred fans. In contrast, the amateur Christmas tournament is always crowded, mostly at the expense of pupils, students, and military personnel who are forced to visit the event.
The best team in the country, Dinamo Minsk, does not participate in the championship. It takes part in the Continental Hockey League and mostly competes with the Russian teams. Despite the huge budget, the team cannott boast of success. For example, this year, Dinamo is the worst league team.
The national team of Belarus does not play well either. A year ago, it barely managed to return to the most active league of the world championship.
Incidentally, together with Riga, Minsk will co-host the 2021 World Cup, it is a matter of pride of Lukashenka. He made great effort to get the 2014 world championship and, for the first time, introduced visa-free entry for hockey fans.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has expressed a keen interest not only in hockey. He is president of the National Olympic Committee, and the President’s Sports Club is headed by his son Dzmitry.
The president often publicly blames Belarusian athletes for the failures at major international tournaments, as well as highlights his important role in case of their victories.
So, a few years ago the media quoted Lukashenka talking about Olympic champion Darya Domracheva:
“Domracheva, when she was a small girl, started here. <…> I taught her to run and said: “You will be great if you do that, that, and that <…>”.
At the same time, everyone knows that the biathlonist started training in Russia and could unlikely hear such advice from Lukashenka.
Sport for Lukashenka has long been a political instrument aimed at improving the country’s image in the international arena, where Belarus is still often referred to as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’. Therefore, the public money is not always rationally distributed, which is proved by, for instance, the organization of the expensive European Games or Christmas tournament.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu