Poland has granted a visa to a Belarusian Olympic sprinter who said she feared for her safety and that her team’s officials in Japan tried to force her to fly home.
An activist group helping Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told the Associated Press it had bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for the coming days.
The stand-off apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticised how officials were managing her team — setting off a massive backlash in state-run media back home, where authorities relentlessly crack down on government critics.
The runner said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4×400 metres relay even though she has never raced in the event.
She was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board a flight for Istanbul and instead approached police for help. In a filmed message distributed on social media, she asked the International Olympic Committee for assistance.
“I was put under pressure, and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” the 24-year-old said in the message.
The events brought international political intrigue to an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to the event.
Belarus’s authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone expressing even mild dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests.
It has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including a recent plane diversion to arrest a dissident journalist that European officials called an act of air piracy.
In this context, Tsimanouskaya feared for her safety once she saw the campaign against her in state media, according to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, the activist group that is helping her.
“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” said Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation.
State media have continued to come down hard on Tsimanouskaya. Presenters on state TV called her decision to seek asylum “a cheap stunt” and “a disgusting act”, and described her performance at the Olympics as a “failure”.
Tsimanouskaya competed for Belarus on the first day of track events on Friday at the National Stadium in Tokyo. She came fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 metres, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.
She was due to compete again in the 200-metre heats on Monday, but said her team barred her from participating in a complaint filed with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She asked the court to overturn that decision, but the body declined to intervene.
Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek, a Polish deputy foreign minister, said the runner asked for the humanitarian visa and can seek refugee status once in Poland.
Vadim Krivosheyev, of the activist sports foundation, said she planned to seek asylum.
Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseni Zdanevich, confirmed to the Russian Sport Express newspaper that he had left Belarus for Ukraine.
Several groups and countries say they are helping the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic offered assistance, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was working with the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympics organisers.
The IOC, which was in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee before the Tokyo Games, said it had intervened, adding: “The IOC … is looking into the situation and has asked for clarification.”
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