[b]175 Belarusian athletes have taken part in the 30th Olympic Games, hosted by London, having devoted their whole life to this event and strained every sinew to claim a medal. However, only a few have been successful, so each medallist deserves to have their story told[/b]
Marina Shkermankova — bronze
and Irina Kulesha — bronze
The Belarusian national team went to London to claim medals. It couldn’t be otherwise; four years ago, our weightlifters brought medals from Beijing, with Andrey Aryamnov claiming gold. Meanwhile, phenomenal Chinese Lu Yong, who set two world records, prevented Andrey Rybakov from repeating the success of the Borisov athlete.
We were expecting something similar in London yet Fate had other plans. Flamboyant Andrey Aryamnov was the first to feel its unexpected sting, suffering an injury which prevented him from taking part, while another old injury stopped Rybakov from doing his best. Meanwhile, the judges supposedly saw the bar-bell sway during Anastasia Novikova’s final round. This aroused questions, since it robbed the world champion of a medal. Those not even mentioned as the ‘closest reserve’ until recently stepped in to save the situation and the new generation did very well.
Marina Shkermankova was the first to earn a medal for Belarus. The head coach of the team, Alexander Goncharov, repeatedly noted Dina Sazanovets and Marina Shkermankova as dark horses, able to surprise us in London. While fans were discussing the prospects of experienced leaders, coaching staff recommended that we watch the second line-up, adding that 69kg was probably the only weight category which would see sharp competition among Belarusians.
Sooner or later, this rivalry between the two friends should have brought results. The absence of Russian Oksana Slivenko significantly eased the girls’ task, as the Russian athlete was considered to be a favourite at the Games; she was injured during recent training. World championship silver medallist Xiang Yanmei of China was also absent but enough rivals remained. In fact, the struggle for awards was even sharper and more unexpected than during the presence of acknowledged leaders.
Three athletes finished the first exercise with the same score while the second exercise — the clean & jerk — was also filled with dramatic and unexpected twists. As a result, the medals were distributed according to the athletes’ personal weight, with Marina Shkermankova being lighter by 210g than Sazanovets and, thus, taking her Olympic medal.
No one expected a medal from Irina Kulesha, since her rivals in the under 75kg category were too strong. As at all recent top tournaments, Russians Natalia Zabolotnaya and Nadezhda Yevstyukhina and their former teammate Svetlana Podobedova (who changed citizenship after disqualification and arrived in London to compete under the Kazakh flag) were favourites; however, Fate again interfered.
In London, Zabolotnaya and Podobedova set four Olympic records, both lifting 291kg. However, the Kazakh sportswoman was awarded the gold medal for her lighter body weight (by a few grams). Yevstyukhina somehow failed to lift the initial weight of 125kg, helping the Belarusian on her way to her medal.
From the Belarusian village of Oberovshchina (in Brest Region) Ms. Kulesha has previously found herself in fourth position at most events, watching the final fight from afar. Among a trio of favourites, Belarusian record breaker Irina Kulesha began her snatch exercise from a ‘warm-up’ position of 116kg but reached 121kg, failing to lift 125kg. However, due to Yevstyukhina’s absence, this was enough to bring her a medal — after lifting 148kg in the clean & jerk. Only 20kg separated Kulesha from Zabolotnaya, ranked second. She believes she could close this gap within four years, before the next Olympiad in Rio.
“This Olympics was very difficult for me as there were so many injuries; it’s psychologically unsettling, as I suffered quite a few injuries when I was on the rise, training for competitions, which meant that I had to start from scratch. It’s great that I managed to cope with this,” notes Ms. Kulesha.
Sergey Martynov — gold
The king’s politeness
It’s amazing that it has taken so long to achieve this success. Of course, shooting is an unexpected sport, with so many factors able to move the target by a fraction of a millimetre, depriving a marksman of gold by a fraction of a point. Even the most cold-blooded and mature sniper can’t be completely sure of a competition going their way.
Minsker Sergey Martynov is calm and experienced, with enough titles, awards and medals for two successful careers. He even set a Guinness World Record on scoring 600 points out of 600 possible. However, this means nothing on the shooting range, since everyone is equal there, starting with a clean slate. Only the present moment matters.
Until now, Martynov has failed to perform successfully at the Olympics, coming third at the Games in Sydney and a modest eighth in Beijing. London was almost his last chance, as he has been considering retiring. A win was crucial. On that day, neither rivals nor outside forces could shatter his confidence, regardless of what has happened in the past.
At the halfway point, everyone realised that only a true miracle could deprive the Belarusian of gold. Finally, he claimed a fiery victory over his opponents. After hitting the target with his last bullet from his Anschutz rifle (10.9 points), Sergey Martynov, still prone, unhurriedly turned to the spectators and waved. He is a champion: the most accurate marksman on the planet, as proven by his Olympic gold medal.
“I’m the best of the last fifteen years, am I?” he modestly smiled. “I don’t know. Maybe, there’s some truth in these words but there are no guarantees. Each shot may hit the target and earn ten points or may earn none. You shoot and then see the result…”
In London, Martynov wrote his name into the history of world sport, in golden letters. He won’t rest on his laurels though, as his victory has breathed new life into him. Shooting is a democratic sport, paying no attention to age: you simply aim and shoot. Martynov has drive and determination to do well now at the next Olympiad in Rio, noting, “If I’m invited, I’ll definitely go!” Undoubtedly, he’ll go to do more than assess the beauties of the remote southern city…
Victoria Azarenko — gold, bronze
Max Mirny — gold
In the UK, tennis is more than merely sport. That played at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club distinguishes itself even against this background: Wimbledon is a ‘Mecca’ of world tennis. Anyone who has ever held a racket dreams of winning there. Olympic victory on those courts is surely the pinnacle of success.
The Grand Slam and tournaments with prizes of millions of US Dollars do, of course, have greater value from the point of view of ratings but the Olympiad offers prestige. Just ask Roger Federer, who has yet again failed to add Olympic gold to his tennis trophies.
Victoria Azarenko arrived in London to claim victory, although she remained quietly modest. However, she could not hide her ambitions; as the world number one seed, she must take the highest aim. Only one rival could potentially stop the Belarusian — Serena Williams of the USA, who missed last year’s season through injury. She is now vying with Victoria for first seed ranking and has many times claimed victory on Wimbledon’s courts. Their meeting at the Olympics was inevitable.
All Victoria’s attempts to break the ‘Black Mamba’ shattered before her and Russian Maria Kirilenko probably felt the same on facing our Victoria in the fight for bronze. Of course, the Belarusian lacks the ‘cannon-ball’ service of Serena but her confidence brought Ms. Kirilenko to tears, as she realised the impossibility of swaying the match in her favour.
“I was very nervous because it felt strange to lose and then return to the same court the next day,” admits Victoria. “However, I didn’t feel the burden of defeat. The match took a lot of my strength but I’m pleased that I played as I did. I have wonderful memories and thrilling emotions to take away with me!”
More drama lay ahead for the Belarusian sportswoman — a true test of her professionalism, as no amateur can play three matches in a single day. After defeating Kirilenko, Azarenko partnered Max Mirny and achieved two more victories. Their ¼ final match was stopped due to lack of light and they defeated American duo Mike Bryan and Lisa Raymond in a dramatic struggle.
Psychologically, the Belarusians were already champions but they were set to face the hosts of the tournament: Andy Murray (who had already taken gold against Federer) and British tennis starlet Laura Robson, 18. Her unpredictability added intrigue to the final match, in which the Belarusians lost the first set.
“Mixed matches are complex, as each is aware of their rival of the same sex; the second partner in the duo is a puzzle,” notes Max Mirny, explaining their initial loss of points. “Everything was going well for the British, who were returning our services. However, when Laura and Andy attacked, everything changed, as we realised their strengths and weaknesses,” adds Victoria, who admits that the three matches played beforehand also influenced the final meeting.
Our tennis players adapted and, with an element of luck, won the second and third sets. Of course, it’s difficult to forecast… but why not? The tennis in Rio will be an historic event, as the Games have never been organised in South America. The winners will certainly go down in history.
Alexandra Gerasimenya —
Alexandra Gerasimenya went to London with mixed feelings. She is a world champion — the first in the history of Belarusian swimming; her fame is like that of 100m sprinters. The elite of Belarusian swimming specialises in the freestyle sprint. However, she also feared her competition, which was immense.
In swimming, hundredths of seconds are important. Moreover, almost every athlete was aiming for gold, as preliminary swims evinced. Gerasimenya finished in seventh place, sending her to the less prestigious, farther lane. From the same lane at the World Championship, she came first, but here finished with a still remarkable silver.
In the semi-finals, Dutch Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who was only third at the World Championship, set a new Olympic record, making herself the main contender for gold. In the 50m, Gerasimenya almost ‘caught’ the Dutch swimmer but again had to be content with silver. Her two silver Olympic medals in London are a first for Belarusian swimming and Alexandra has certainly worked hard to reach the top, even enduring a strange disqualification (which almost persuaded her to retire). She can easily consider herself to be a true champion.
“Of course, I’m glad that I’ve written my name into history. My medals are the first for independent Belarus at the Olympics, so I’m very proud of them,” she mused the next day, on having gathered her thoughts and realised the scale of the event at the Olympic Park Aquatics Centre pool. “I hope these will inspire a new generation of our swimmers. However, I must admit that I’m slightly frustrated, as I wanted gold. I had it in my sights but failed again.”
Canoe and kayak rowing
Marina Poltoran, Olga Khudenko, Nadezhda Popok and Irina Pomelova — bronze, Alexander Bogdanovich and Andrey Bogdanovich — silver, Roman Petrushenko and Vadim Makhnev: silver paddles
We repeatedly heard ‘our rowers will definitely earn medals’ and our athletes proved us right. The efficiency of methods used by head coach Vladimir Shantarovich is undeniable; his scientific approach worked in Beijing and the trend continued in London with a new generation of rowers.
Four wonderful girls — Marina Poltoran, Olga Khudenko, Nadezhda Popok and Irina Pomelova — came third in the women’s K4 500m, at Eton Rowing Canal, earning the first medal for Belarusian women’s rowing in our independent history. We should assume that it won’t be the last medal, since the girls only debuted at the World Cup adult event last year.
Hardly anyone expected such speed from them at the Olympics, yet they sailed the distance and claimed their medal. “This has been our first Games, so it was very difficult psychologically,” admitted the girls afterwards. “However, we’re now different. This is our first big award but we’ll continue to earn smaller medals while proving to the whole world that Belarus is number one!” We don’t doubt this.
The next day, the Bogdanovich brothers Alexander and Andrey took the baton from the girls. The successors of the first Belarusian Olympic champions, Leonid Geishtor and Sergey Makarenko (who won the K2 1,000m in the 1960s) had their hearts set on gold. In Beijing, 48 years on from Leonid and Sergey, Alexander and Andrey repeated their success and, in London, they were determined to defend their title. Sadly, they were forced to accept silver, beating the water with their oars in a fit of frustration. For most, their result would be the ultimate dream but the Belarusian brothers were aiming higher. However, they are now setting their sights on revenge in Rio, which is hosting the next Games; they’ll certainly be calling out the German squad. “We don’t plan to leave rowing. We’ll continue until we can no longer worthily represent the country. We won’t agree to anything less than success!”
Rowers have long shown us that medals are a sure thing at any competitions
In Athens, the team — coached by Vladimir Shantarovich — began to show their potential, rising to the crest of the wave in Beijing. In London, they were up against much younger athletes but their experience and endurance still brought a silver medal.
Following the Bogdanovich brothers and the women’s kayak four, Beijing gold champions Roman Petrushenko and Vadim Makhnev have claimed medals at Eton. If the Olympic distance had been longer, they’d have won for sure, but lost to the young Russian team.
“We worked as hard as we could, so feel we deserve our medal,” they admitted, following a barrage of congratulations. “It’s a good end to the season. Of course, our feelings on taking the quad ‘gold’ in Beijing were quite different. As concerns the Russians’ victory, it’s certainly fair: they’ve done well all season, so nobody could catch them.”
The Belarusian pair have shown their true talent in the world of rowing and, naturally, it’s almost impossible to continue indefinitely at the top. However, they won’t rest on their oars. They explain, “We’ll choose our competitions carefully. For example, if we participate in the World Cup stages, we can check our comparable level with rivals. We may well form a new foursome, with Oleg Yurenya and Artur Litvinchuk.”
Bronze for Lyubov Cherkashina, silver for the team in the group contest
Power in beauty
Rhythmic gymnastics is a difficult sport, involving unbelievable stretching and head-spinning combinations. There are lots of secret moves which can be used to claim victory, so mere talent is not enough. Any girl claiming gold needs to be an actress, a strategist and, even, a politician. Against this background, the success of the Belarusian beauties is hugely impressive. Only they (and coaches Irina Leparskaya and Tatiana Nenasheva) know how much effort is involved. The squad has been winning medals for 16 years, despite this graceful sport being among the most capricious.
The girls brought two medals home from Beijing and repeated their result in London. Lyubov Cherkashina also took an individual bronze. Lacking the phenomenal talent of Yevgenia Kanayeva, who gained her second Olympic gold in London, the Belarusian nevertheless showed her determination! Performing last, with the ribbon, she began to cry even before leaving the floor.
The group exercise silver followed a dramatic journey, as the girls were only placed fourth after their initial round. On appearing for the second time, they surpassed the Italians, Spaniards and Bulgarians, although it was clear that the Russians would take gold. Laughing through their tears, the girls told us, “When you’ve being training your whole life and your destiny depends on a few minutes, it can be very difficult to refocus. However, we coped with the pressure and can now congratulate one another from the heart!”
In total, during the Olympiad in London Belarusian sportsmen have won 12 medals.
By Dmitry Kamashko