Belarusian runner flies to Europe after feud with team managers

MOSCOW – A Belarusian sprinter left Tokyo on Wednesday en route to Europe after resisting an attempt by her Olympic team officials to send her home to Belarus, where the athlete said she could be endangered by authorities who have relentlessly suppressed dissent.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya boarded a plane at Tokyo Narita International Airport which left the departure gate for Vienna, but she had to go to Poland. Before leaving Japan, Tsimanouskaya said she hoped she could continue her career but that safety was her immediate priority.

Several countries offered to help after the 24-year-old fled to the European Union, and Poland granted her a humanitarian visa.

Vadim Krivosheyev, an activist with the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, said Tsimanouskaya flew to Austria on the advice of Polish authorities.

“The decision to change the route and go to Vienna was taken by the Polish side for security reasons,” Krivosheyev told The Associated Press.

After landing in Vienna, Tsimanouskaya was due to travel to Warsaw later Wednesday, according to Krivosheyev.

Tsimanouskaya’s experience at the Tokyo Games has become an international issue after accusing Belarusian team officials of pushing her to the airport several days ago and attempting to put her on a plane for Belarus because she criticized the management of the team on social networks. Team officials have made it clear that they will face retaliation in their country, she said.

Officials “made it clear that upon returning home I would certainly face some form of punishment,” Tsimanouskaya told the PA in a video call interview from Tokyo on Tuesday. “There were also thinly disguised hints that others would be waiting for me.”

She added that she believed she would be expelled from the Belarusian national team.

“I would love to continue my sports career because I’m only 24 and had plans for at least two more Olympics,” Tsimanouskaya said. But “for now, the only thing that worries me is my safety.”

Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Dzmitry Dauhalionak, head of the Belarusian delegation to the Summer Olympics, declined to comment, saying he had “no words”.

Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of the way officials were handling his team sparked a massive backlash in state media in Belarus. 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.

The sprinter on Tuesday called on international sports authorities “to investigate the situation, which gave the order, which effectively made the decision that I can no longer compete”. She suggested possible penalties against the head coach.

In the PA interview, Tsimanouskaya also expressed concern for his parents, who remain in Belarus. Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, told the AP he had decided to leave the country when Tsimanouskaya told him she would not be returning.

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests after President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in the August 2020 elections that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. Authorities responded to the protests with a sweeping crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

In a show of determination to stifle dissent at all costs, they hijacked an airliner that was flying from Greece to Lithuania in May and ordered it to land in the Belarusian capital, where they arrested a journalist from opposition that was on board.

Amid Tsimanouskaya’s rift with his 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. .

The authoritative Belarusian president, who led the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for nearly a quarter of a century before handing over the post to his eldest son in February, has shown a keen interest in the sport, seeing him as a key part of the national prestige.

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Lukashenko and his son were both banned from the Tokyo Games by the International Olympic Committee, which investigated complaints from athletes that they were intimidated during the crackdown on anti-government protests during the year last.

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.

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