Belarusian Olympic runner fearful of returning home lands in Poland
WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who feared for her safety at home after criticizing her coaches on social media, traveled to Warsaw on a humanitarian visa on Wednesday evening after leaving the Olympics from Tokyo, confirmed a Polish diplomat.
Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said the 24-year-old arrived in the Polish capital after flying from Tokyo via Vienna, a route apparently chosen to confuse those who would put his safety in danger. In a statement, the diplomat said he “wanted to thank all Polish consular and diplomatic staff involved, who perfectly planned and ensured their safe trip.”
The plane in which she was traveling from Vienna was directed to a separate building at Warsaw Airport used by government officials. Police vans were seen all over the airport. Passengers on the flight told reporters that a young woman was left on board as they exited the plane and placed on buses to the main terminal.
Tsimanouskaya was next seen with a prominent Belarusian dissident in Poland, Pavel Latushko, in a photo taken just after arriving inside the airport building.
“We are happy that Kristina Timanovskaya managed to get to Warsaw safely! Latushko said on Twitter, adding that he hopes she can return to “New Belarus” and continue her career there.
During a dramatic weekend at the Tokyo Games, Tsimanouskaya said Belarusian team officials tried to force her to return home soon after she criticized them. She urged the International Olympic Committee to look into the dispute and some European countries stepped in to offer help.
The next step for the runner is unclear, whether in her athletic or personal life. Before leaving Japan, she said she hoped to continue her running career, but safety was her immediate priority. Her husband fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife announced she would not be returning, and Poland offered him a visa as well.
“We are very happy that she is safe here,” said Magnus Brunner, a senior Austrian government official, after the plane arrived from Tsimanouskaya in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon. “But she is afraid for her future and for her family.”
At Vienna airport, the runner was protected by Austrian police, public broadcaster ORF reported, and remained in the transit zone. Tsimanouskaya first went to Austria instead of directly to Poland on the advice of Polish authorities for security reasons, said Vadim Krivosheyev of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation.
The drama began after Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of the way officials were handling his team sparked a massive backlash in state media in Belarus, where the government relentlessly hushed up any criticism. The runner said on Instagram that she entered the 4×400 relay despite never competing in the event. She was then banned from participating in the 200 meters.
She accused team officials of pushing her to Tokyo airport, but she refused to board a return plane and was protected by Japanese security.
Officials “made it clear that upon returning home I would certainly face some form of punishment,” Tsimanouskaya told the PA on a video call from Tokyo on Tuesday. “There were also thinly disguised hints that others would be waiting for me.”
The sprinter called on international sports authorities “to investigate the situation, which gave the order, which in fact made the decision that I can no longer compete.” She suggested possible penalties against the head coach.
Reached by phone, Dzmitry Dauhalionak, head of the Belarusian delegation to the Tokyo Olympics, declined to comment.
The standoff has drawn more attention to Belarus’s hardline authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following a presidential election that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded by arresting some 35,000 people and beating thousands of protesters. In recent months, the government has orchestrated a strong crackdown on independent media and opposition figures.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who led the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for nearly a quarter of a century before handing over the post to his son in February, has a keen interest in sport, seeing it as a key part of national prestige. .
And his government has shown that it is prepared to go to great lengths to target its critics. In May, Belarusian authorities hijacked a European airliner to the capital Minsk, where they arrested an opposition journalist on board.
In the AP interview, Tsimanouskaya expressed concern for his parents, who remain in Belarus.
Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, left for Ukraine shortly after the start of the drama. Poland has since issued him a humanitarian visa.
Amid Tsimanouskaya’s break-up with team officials, two other Belarusian athletes announced their intention to stay abroad.
Heptathlete Yana Maksimava said she and her husband Andrei Krauchanka, who won decathlon silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, will remain in Germany.
“I have no plans to go home after all the events that have happened in Belarus,” Maksimava said on Instagram, adding that “you may lose not only your freedom but also your life” in his homeland. .
Western leaders condemned the treatment of Tsimanouskaya by Belarusian authorities.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the attempt by Belarusian officials to force Tsimanouskaya to return to Belarus for exercising freedom of expression as “another act of transnational repression”.
“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to fundamental rights and cannot be tolerated,” Blinken said on Twitter.
While Tsimanouskaya has said she hopes to continue her athletic career, she could face lengthy proceedings if she wishes to compete under a different flag.
Tomasz Majewski, vice-president of the Polish Athletics Association and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, expressed fears that Tsimanouskaya “will lose the best part of her career” if she changes nationality.
“These are complicated questions. We know there will be clear objections from the home team which will likely make it difficult or even require the athlete to be disqualified, ”he said.
Follow AP’s coverage of Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus
___ Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press editors Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Alex Schuller in Vienna, and Monika Scislowska and Rafal Niedzielski in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.