Belarus basketball star Yelena Leuchanka has twice represented her country at the Olympic Games, but until this year she had always stayed out of politics. That changed abruptly when her country was engulfed by protests.
When she joined a street demonstration against President Alexander Lukashenko, one of the country’s best known athletes found herself arrested and jailed in a lice-ridden cell.
Released after 15 days, the former center who played four seasons in the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has added her name to an open letter of protest signed by nearly 1,000 Belarusian sports figures.
The open letter condemns the Aug. 9 presidential election won by Lukashenko as fraudulent and demands a re-run. It calls for the release of all those detained during more than 11 weeks of street protests and strikes against the veteran leader.
The athletes – including freestyle skier Hanna Huskova, who was the 2018 Olympic champion in aerials, and swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medallist – say they will stick together.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The protest highlights how discontent has seeped even into social groups traditionally loyal to the state. In former Soviet countries, it is rare for elite athletes to publicly criticize the government, which often provides much of their funding.
Leuchanka says she had never even voted until this year. It was a combination of factors – Lukashenko’s dismissive attitude to the coronavirus, the imprisonment or self-exile of other presidential candidates, and police violence against demonstrators – that compelled her to join the protests.
Standing a towering 196 cm (6 feet 5 inches) tall, Leuchanka was crammed into a Minsk prison cell with up to four other people, where she tried to keep fit with breathing exercises and squats.
With no mattress, flushing toilet or access to showers, she says she contracted lice and developed dermatitis all over her body. Her old athletics injuries flared up.
She finally flew to Greece last week to receive the treatment she had planned before her time in jail.
Reflecting on her ordeal, Leuchanka believes the authorities chose to make an example of a well-known professional athlete.
“I feel sorry for them,” she told Reuters. “We (demonstrators) are in a prison, behind bars, but, believe me, we are much more free than they are.”
(Production: Maria Vasilyeva)