MINSK -- In the days since popular protests erupted in Belarus following the disputed election that Alyaksandr Lukashenka was declared the winner of, a string of cultural luminaries have joined the opposition: theater directors, musicians, the country's beloved Nobel laureate.
Now athletes and major sports figures are joining the call, opposing Lukashenka's harsh crackdown and criticizing his refusal to hold new elections.
Nearly 350 Belarusian athletes and other members of the sports community have thrown down the gauntlet to Lukashenka by signing an open letter calling for the August 9 vote to be annulled and for all "political prisoners" and those detained during mass demonstrations to be released.
The letter is a remarkable -- and growing -- show of defiance among a high-profile group whose livelihood is highly dependent on the Belarusian state and whose achievements have been a key element of national pride and government propaganda throughout Lukashenka's 26 years running the country.
Lukashenka himself is an avid sportsman, and this has been central to his projected macho image.
"It is absurd that a person can live in the heart of Europe in the 21st century and not be allowed to express their opinion," said Maryna Arzamasava, a world champion middle-distance runner who was among the signers of the open letter. "We are prepared for anything -- from being dismissed to being left off of teams. None of that matters."
"No work is worth being silent," she added.
Among the best-known athletes who have joined the protest are basketball player Alena Leuchanka, national freestyle-skiing team trainer Mikalay Kazeka, European champion long-distance runner Volha Mazuronak, national volleyball team member Artur Udrys, and many others with Olympic, European championship, and world championship medals.
The open letter is far from the only sign that sports figures are increasingly at odds with Lukashenka and appalled by the brutality of the security forces' response to the postelection protests.
Several leading Belarusian tennis players, including former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, have written on social media either to support the protests against the election results or to call for an end to the violence.
Soccer star Illya Shkuryn announced earlier this month that he will not play for the national team as long as Lukashenka remains in power.
On August 24, the Belarusian Soccer Federation issued a letter to all teams insisting that players refrain from "political propaganda." As an Olympic sport, the letter said, soccer "must remain neutral in all political, religious, ethnic, racial, and other matters."
The letter came after several players made gestures or donned slogans supporting the anti-government protests. On August 23, members of the Minsk Krumkachy squad took the field for a match wearing T-shirts with the slogan, "We are with the people!"
The soccer federation's call for political neutrality struck many observers as odd since on August 6 it published an election statement by Lukashenka with a hashtag that translates as "One Belarus/We Won't Surrender."
Soccer matches continued to be played in front of fans throughout the coronavirus pandemic in support of the government's policy of downplaying the situation. Lukashenka himself has prominently soft-pedaled the dangers of the disease, saying publicly that remedies like vodka, or farm work, or even saunas, would work just fine.
In a to-the-point Facebook post on August 21, the president of the Belarusian Track and Field Federation, former parliament deputy Vadzim Dzevyatouski, wrote, "Lukashenka is not my president!!!!!"
Speaking to journalists the next day, Dzevyatouski elaborated, saying of his earlier ardent support for the president: "My previous position was a mistake. I was deceiving myself."
One sport that has been notably underrepresented among the athletes backing the protests has been Lukashenka's favorite pastime -- ice hockey. "Hockey is a special case," Arzamasava told RFE/RL. "We can only guess how much hockey players are paid. But today they are hiding, being silent. How can you live at the expense of the people, the citizens, and not support them?"
'Shut Up And Dribble'
The protest of the athletes in recent days was foreshadowed – perhaps ominously for Lukashenka – in the weeks before the election.
Over the summer, some athletes spoke out against the arrests and disqualifications of many strong opposition would-be contenders.
In July, basketball player Mikita Meshcharakou posted in a since-deleted Facebook post: "Candidates are put in jail; people are gagged. This is not the future of Belarus."
Olympic champion skater Ihar Zhalyazouski came out against Lukashenka in July. "Knowing our leader, it is hard to expect a fair election," he told RFE/RL at the time. "I have not been surprised that he chose such tactics as discrediting opponents, jailing competitors, breaking up rallies, and putting people on trial. And he doesn't care that this just puts more and more people against him and pushes away even those who once supported him. He spits on them."
The government responded with reprisals and veiled threats. Meshcharakou was left off the national team after his Facebook post.
The first deputy head of Lukashenka's administration and the chairman of the national basketball federation, Maksim Ryzhenkou, told the website Tribuna.com that "the leadership of this country gives [athletes] every chance to realize their potential."
"You have been given everything thanks to the policies that are being carried out in our country," he said. "And I would advise some of our athletes -- including former athletes -- to think about that carefully before they irresponsibly and publicly discuss things that are far from their understanding."
Runner Arzamasava says the athletes signing the open letter are prepared for the consequences, as well as to fight back. "If they move from words to threats, we reserve the right to make this public internationally," she said. "We will appeal to the International Olympic Committee and inform them how our sports authorities are acting. If necessary, we will write to international sports federations and appeal to foreign athletes to support this wave of solidarity."
On August 25, the formation of an Athletic Solidarity Foundation was announced with the aim of providing support to any athletes who suffer reprisals because of their political statements.