A Belarusian sprinter who sought police protection after refusing to board a flight home early from the Olympics has been granted a humanitarian visa for Poland, where she plans to seek asylum, according to reports Monday.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a 24-year-old Belarusian athlete, was seen entering the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday, the day after she appealed for help from the international community, saying she feared for her safety if she was returned against her will to her authoritarian homeland by team officials.
An official at Poland’s Foreign Ministry said she had been granted a humanitarian visa, the Associated Press reported, while the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an activist group that supports athletes persecuted by the regime of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, said Tsimanouskaya had bought a plane ticket to fly to Warsaw on Wednesday.
Tsimanouskaya, who had been due to compete in the women's 200m heats Monday, has been at the centre of a major diplomatic incident on the sidelines of the Olympics since Belarus team officials forcibly took her to the airport for an early flight home Sunday, after she publicly criticised team managers.
Instead, the 24-year-old sprinter refused to board the flight, saying she feared for her safety, and sought the assistance from Japanese police at the airport, who kept her under protection overnight.
A number of countries offered their support for the athlete, with Poland’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marcin Przydacz, tweeting Sunday that his country was “ready to help.”
“She was offered a humanitarian visa and is free to pursue her sporting career in Poland if she so chooses,” he wrote.
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek also tweeted that his country had offered asylum.
“If she decides to accept it, we’ll do our maximum to help her,” he wrote.
Belarus has faced a wave of brutal repression since authoritarian strongman Lukashenko, in power since 1994, launched a sweeping crackdown in response to mass protests that erupted over a disputed election last year.
But while scores of Belarusian athletes have been arrested, fired from their jobs or otherwise targeted for speaking out against the regime, Tsimanouskaya faced punishment not for speaking out against the Lukashenko government directly, but for criticising her country’s Olympic officials.
Tsimanouskaya fell foul of team officials when she took to Instagram to criticise their decision to have her compete in the 4x400m relay – an event she had never participated in.
She then posted a video saying she was being pressured by team officials, appealing to the International Olympic Committee for help.
“I was put under pressure and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” she said. In a later message to a Reuters reporter, she said her team’s head coach had told her “there had been an order from above to remove me.”
The Belarusian Olympic Committee said in a statement that coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya following medical advice about her "emotional, psychological state” – a claim the sprinter rejected.
Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that while the incident did not start out as a political scandal it “has become one due to the extremely heavy-handed response to her statements, which have included vicious attacks on her reputation by Belarusian state media, and then the attempt to force her to fly home.”
She said that had fuelled fears she could face serious persecution on her return to Belarus. According to reports, Tsimanouskaya's husband is currently in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, having fled Belarus, and intends to rejoin his wife in Poland.
Bindman said it was likely the order to forcibly return the athlete to Belarus came from the highest levels, “possibly even [Lukashenko] himself, who is fanatical about sports.” An amateur ice hockey player, Lekashenko personally headed up his country’s National Olympic Committee until December.
She said the episode reflected Lukashenko’s paranoia about “anything or anyone that could be seen as critical of his beleaguered regime,” which had led to increasingly dramatic incidents in recent months. In May, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted and forced to land in Belarus, under the flimsy pretext of a fake bomb threat.
That surreal incident was referenced by exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as she called on Sunday for Tsimanouskaya to be given protection.
“The regime’s hijack of the Ryanair plane was just the start of Lukashenka's international terror,” she tweeted. “They kidnapped Pratasevich & Sapega, they tried to kidnap Belarusian athlete.”.
Rights groups say sport has become “a battleground” in Belarus, with athletes facing serious consequences for speaking out against the regime. According to the BSSF, 95 Belarusian athletes have been detained for joining peaceful protests, seven charged with political offences, and 124 have suffered other forms of repression – including 35 athletes and trainers who were cut from national squads.
“Belarusian athletes have paid a high price for daring to speak out and it’s clear that sport is now a battleground for reprisals in Belarus,” said Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s eastern Europe and Central Asia researcher.
“Athletes are favoured by the state and honoured by society, and it is not surprising that athletes who speak out find themselves a target for reprisals.”