Belarusian sprinter: my grandmother advised me not to go home
A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who feared reprisals at home after criticizing her coaches at the Tokyo Games said on Thursday that her grandmother had advised her not to return to Belarus.
After a dramatic standoff, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya got off a plane in Warsaw on Wednesday evening, days after accusing team officials of trying to force her back to Belarus, where an authoritarian government has relentlessly pursued its critics.
In images posted on Facebook, the runner could be seen smiling as she spoke to a Polish official in a VIP section of the airport and also hugged a Belarusian opposition leader.
Many of the country’s activists have fled to Poland to avoid a brutal crackdown by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The runner told reporters her grandmother told her there had been negative reports about her on television in Belarus after her argument with team officials became public.
In a swift series of events that brought international drama to the Tokyo Games, Tsimanouskaya said officials of the Belarusian team pushed her to the airport and attempted to send her home soon after criticizing the how his team was managed.
She refused to board the plane, and European countries critical of the Lukashenko regime offered to help. The Polish government eventually granted the athlete a humanitarian visa.
Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo via Vienna on Wednesday, a circuitous route that Polish officials said was for security reasons.
It wasn’t clear what the next step would be for the 24-year-old, whether in her athletic or personal life.
She urged the International Olympic Committee to look into the dispute and said she hopes to continue her running career. But she added that her priority would be her own safety.
She was expected to appear at a press conference in Warsaw later Thursday.
The standoff has drawn more attention to Belarus’s hardline authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following elections that gave Lukashenko a sixth term, but which the opposition and the West saw as rigged, the authorities responded with sweeping repression.
Some 35,000 people were arrested and thousands of demonstrators beaten. The government has also targeted independent media and opposition figures.
While Tsimanouskaya’s criticisms were aimed at team officials – she complained that she had to attend an event she had never attended – her challenge may not have been well received by authorities policies.
Mr Lukashenko, who led the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for almost a quarter of a century before handing over the post to his son in February, has a keen interest in the sport, seeing it as a key part of national prestige.
Tsimanouskaya’s husband Arseni Zdanevich fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife announced she would not be returning.
Poland has also granted him a visa, and he is expected to join it.