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Georgian Olympian Claims Threats From President's Camp

Bidzina Ivanishvili (left), leader of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, and Georgian judoka Betkil Shukvani, posed for a photograph ahead of the Olympics.
Bidzina Ivanishvili (left), leader of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, and Georgian judoka Betkil Shukvani, posed for a photograph ahead of the Olympics.
Betkil Shukvani, a popular Georgian judoka who had been favored to win a medal, left the London Olympics empty-handed. But that was the least of his problems.

Just days before his departure to the Summer Games, Shukvani had expressed his support for the Georgian Dream opposition coalition -- even posing for a photograph with its embattled billionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

All was well, Shukvani says, until he boarded a plane for London with fellow athletes and a host of Georgian Olympic officials, including Sports Minister Lado Vardzelashvili and his close ally, lawmaker Giorgi Udesiani.

The two men, both members of Georgia's ruling United National Movement and loyalists of President Mikheil Saakashvili, allegedly began berating the 24-year-old athlete, using "vulgar language" to condemn his public ties to Ivanishvili.

For a young athlete facing his first Olympic competition, Shukvani says the stress was almost more than he could bear. "Psychologically, they just devastated me. But I tried to remain strong. And I feel like I was really ready for the competition," he says.

"But what happened -- I have no idea how to characterize it. I have 12 years of experience in sports, and I still can't explain what happened to me," Shukvani adds.

Under Pressure

Shukvani's time on the mat proved disappointing. Despite a strong showing, he was eliminated in just the second round of the 60-kilogram category, losing out to Frenchman Sofiane Milous on July 28.

The match, inexplicably, had been cut from the live broadcast of the Games on Georgian public television. And Georgian Olympic officials refused to offer Shukvani support when he challenged the judge on a critical ruling in the match.

Giorgi Udesiani (file photo)
Giorgi Udesiani (file photo)
Several days later, Shukvani received a message at his Olympic Village dormitory: Udesiani was outside, with a group of young men, and wanted to talk to him.

Shukvani suspected he was in for more than a talk. Udesiani, a thick-set businessman with a no-nonsense expression, is widely believed to be the organizer of enforcement rings, known locally as "Zonder brigades," used to attack Saakashvili's opponents

Shukvani says he had every reason to believe he faced a beating, or worse, for his ties to Ivanishvili. "Can you imagine any more pressure? I was at the Olympics. And I was being chased. That's not pressure?" he asks.

"Whoever keeps silent doesn't have any problems. But as soon as somebody reveals their political sympathies, the pressure will begin from that very day," he notes.

Slipping out of a window, Shukvani left the Olympic Village and called a friend to help him buy a plane ticket. On August 2, after several days missing, he surfaced in Tbilisi, wearing a Georgian Dream T-shirt and nervously recounting his narrow escape at a press conference.

Mixing Politics And Sport

His account has been roundly rejected by Olympic officials. In a statement, the Georgian Sports Ministry dismissed Shukvani's claim as false and said that "the state has contributed everything" to ensure the successful participation of "all" Olympic athletes."

Vardzelashvili later appeared to attack Shukvani's credibility, saying he had been caught stealing at a previous competition in Germany.

Kakha Beridze, a spokesman for the Georgian Olympic Committee, told RFE/RL the issue was currently closed for discussion. "We decided not to comment on this topic anymore. The situation is already tense enough," he said. "As soon as we get back to Tbilisi, we'll organize a special press conference and we'll answer all questions."

Betkili Shukvani (in blue) was eliminated in just the second round by Frenchman Sofiane Milous.
Betkili Shukvani (in blue) was eliminated in just the second round by Frenchman Sofiane Milous.

Fellow athletes, however, have shown signs of support for Shukvani's plight.

Sambo champions Nodar Metreveli and Ushangi Kuzanashvili and judoka Ambako Avaliani added their names to an August 3 statement accusing the Sports Ministry of putting pressure on athletes who supported Georgian Dream.

"The government is mixing politics and sport," the statement added.

The controversy comes as Georgia is just two months away from critical parliamentary elections that will set the stage for next year's presidential elections to choose a successor to Saakashvili.

Rights groups have accused Saakashvili loyalists of using administrative resources, and occasionally violence, to pressure Georgian Dream politicians and supporters ahead of the October parliamentary vote.

Georgian Dream spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze said that at a time when the nation should be celebrating its athletes, the government was using them as political poker chips.

"This is proof yet again that this government is not interested in the development of sports, Olympic medals, or Georgia's success. None of that," Panjikidze said. "For them, only one thing matters: that athletes remain loyal and committed to them."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Eka Kevanishvili and Olesya Vartanyan in Tbilisi and Elguja Berishvili in London

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