A loss in a judo bout, a flight from the window and unbearable political pressure: the story of the Georgian judoka Betkil Shuk’vani may be the most eventful and politicised of the whole London Olympics. It’s quite difficult to establish the truth about what happened, as the two contending parts have divergent versions: the facts tell the story of an athlete who disappeared from the Olympic village in London only to reappear a fortnight later in Tbilisi. In a press conference, Shuk’vani accused the most important members of the country’s Olympic delegation of intimidation and pressure caused by his political affiliation. He told he escaped the village in order to avoid beatings by a member of the Georgian ministry of Sport and Youth Policies. The story was given coverage by the Italian version of the Russian news agency Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia), by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and by the Georgian website Ambebi.
Betkil Shuk’vani publicly endorses the opposition party Kartuli Otsneba (also known as “Georgian Dream”), founded and led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and also supported, as we wrote some months ago, by the former Genoa and AC Milan footballer K’akhaber K’aladze. Another judoka ranks among the other sport figures involved in Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream: Zurab Zviadauri, Olympic champion at Athens 2004. Zviadauri, as well as Shuk’vani, had to endure heavy pressure for his decision: some of his friends were fired from their jobs and he received asphyxiating calls from various governmental institutions, advising him not to join Kartuli Otsneba. Politics also drew a division between him and his cousin Jarji, another Olympic champion, but also a supporter of P’et’re Tsisk’arishvili, an MP for president Saak’ashvili’s party Ertiani Natsionaluri Modzraoba (“United National Movement”): “Jarji’s not my relative anymore, he is dead to me”. A number of other sport personalities openly oppose Saak’ashvili, including the wrestler Eldar K’urt’anidze – who retired in a monastery after feeling “let down by my own compatriots” and chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili.
According to Shuk’vani, his life became a nightmare ever since the departure of the Olympic delegation: on the flight to London the Georgian minister of sport Lado Vardzelashvili and his ally Gia Udesiani – supporters of Saak’ashvili – condemned in no-uncertain terms his bonds with Ivanishvili. Pressure kept growing after Shuk’vani’s elimination by the hands of the French figher Sofiane Milous at the round of 32 of the 60 kg category table. A bout which was unexplicably cut from the public Georgian television coverage and which was influenced by a dubious refereeing decision against which Shuk’vani protested – without any backing by his own delegation.
The worst was yet to come, though: a couple days later Shuk’vani received a message telling him that Gia Udesiani was out of the door of his flat in the Olympic village with a group of young men and wanted to talk to him. Udesiani is a notorious character, alleged to be the organiser of the Zonder Brigadebis, thug brigades who carried out assaults on opposition members and in which Udesiani is thought to have tried to enrol a number of wrestlers and judokas. Shuk’vani, not foreseeing anything good, fled from the window of the room, bought a plane ticket through a Croatian friend and went back to Tbilisi where, sporting a t-shirt of Ivanishvili’s party, he denounced the pressure he had to bear on behalf of the government.
The ministry of Sports dismissed Shuk’vani allegations: “The state has contributed everything for all athletes in order to their successful participation. As for the accusations of political coalition Georgian dream and the judoist betkil Shukvani, Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs of Georgia once again encourages athletes to separate sport and active political career from each other and sporting success or failure should not be used for collecting cheap political points”. Yet, doubt was cast further by the answer of three athletes of the Olympic team of the country, which proves the profound rifts running among the Georgian people and among the Olympic delegation itself. The three athletes, along with Shuk’vani, subscribed and released a statement denouncing episodes of political pressure on behalf of the government on sportsmen who support Kartuli Otsneba.