Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has said she showed the police in Tokyo a translated plea for help on her phone as she sought to avoid being forced on a plane back home amid fears for her safety.
The 24-year-old sprinter refused to board a flight headed for Minsk via Istanbul on Sunday after being hustled to the Japanese capital’s Haneda airport against her wishes because she had publicly criticised her Olympic team’s management.
After seeking protection from the Japanese police, she flew to Poland instead of Belarus on Wednesday.
Poland, which has long been critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and harboured many activists from Belarus, has granted Tsimanouskaya and her husband humanitarian visas.
Describing her ordeal publicly for the first time, the athlete told Reuters news agency on Thursday that her family feared she would be sent to a psychiatric ward if she went back to Belarus, and that her grandmother had called her to tell her not to return.
“Grandmother called me when they were already driving me to the airport,” Tsimanouskaya said. “I had some 10 seconds. She called me, all that she told me was, ‘Please do not come back to Belarus, it’s not safe.’”
‘I am not afraid’
Sunday’s standoff began after Tsimanouskaya publicly complained that she had been registered by her coaches to participate in a race she had never competed in: the 4×400 metres relay.
She said she was then barred from competing in the 200 metres scheduled to take place on Monday and withdrawn from the Tokyo Games altogether by her team’s officials.
Tsimanouskaya said she had told her coach on Sunday that she was ready to run in the 200 metres, but he then went to make a call.
“And in [a] couple of hours the head coach came to me with the team representative and they said there was a decision made to send me home, we are not the ones who made the decision, we are only executing it. You have 40 minutes. You have to pack your things and go to the airport,” she added.
The decision, she added, came from “high up”.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee had said coaches withdrew Tsimanouskaya from the games on doctors’ advice about her emotional and psychological state.
At the airport in Tokyo, the coaches were taken by surprise, the athlete said.
“They did not expect that in the airport I can approach the police. They think that we are scared to make a move, that we are afraid to speak, afraid to tell the truth to the whole world. But I am not afraid,” Tsimanouskaya said.
The International Olympic Committee has started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya’s case and said it was set to hear from the two Belarusian officials allegedly involved.
Before going to Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya was not among the few Belarusian Olympians who publicly voiced support for the opposition to Lukashenko, who is under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since last year.
Opposition figures have been prosecuted, jailed or fled since mass protests against his rule erupted following an August 2020 election that handed Lukashenko a sixth presidential term, but observers and Belarus’s political opposition denounced it as rigged.
“I have always been far from politics, I didn’t sign any letters or go to any protests, I didn’t say anything against the Belarusian government,” Tsimanouskaya said.
“It may sound cruel because of all the terrible things that happened in Belarus last summer but I was trying to keep away from it … all I have wanted is to go to the Olympics and do my best,” she said.
Sports play a high-profile role in Belarusian politics under Lukashenko, who headed the Belarus Olympic Committee until he was replaced by his son this year.
Tsimanouskaya said she hoped to be able to continue her sporting career in the future and eventually return to Belarus.
“I love my country. I did not betray it,” she said.