Poland Grants Belarusan Olympian Refuge After Criticizing Government Coaches

TOPSHOT - Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who claimed her team tried to force her to leave Japan following a row during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, walks with her luggage inside the Polish embassy in Tokyo on August 2, 2021. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP) (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP …
YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a 24-year-old Olympic sprinter, took refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday after criticizing her coaches and subsequently fearing the repressive leftist regime in her native Belarus would endanger her life and that of her family.

Tsimanouskaya obtained a humanitarian visa from the Polish government on Monday, while her husband Arsen Zhdanevich reportedly arrived in Ukraine en route to Poland. Tsimanouskaya pleaded for international assistance last week to avoid returning home to Belarus, fearing punishment from its tyrannical Russia-backed regime for her dissident speech.

Tsimanouskaya wrote Instagram posts in which she criticized her coaches for not completing required blood tests for other members of the Belarusan women’s team. This left some athletes ineligible and forced the judges to enter Tsimanouskaya in a relay event she had not trained for.

“It turns out that our ‘very cool’ leadership has once again decided everything for us,” she wrote sarcastically. “Why do we have to pay for your mistakes?”

Tsimanouskaya participated in the 100-meter heats on Friday and was scheduled to compete in the 200-meter event on Monday, but on Sunday coaching staff allegedly confronted her in her hotel room and ordered her to pack her bags and return home. 

The Belarusan Olympic Committee said she was withdrawn from the competition due to her troubled “emotional” and “psychological” condition, but Tsimanouskaya said that was a “lie” and she was facing political persecution because “I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches.”

“Some of our girls did not fly here to compete in the 4x400m relay because they didn’t have enough doping tests,” she later elaborated to Reuters. “And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge. I spoke about this publicly. The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me.”

Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of the coaching staff was, by extension, a critique of Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose son Viktor is head of the Belarus National Olympic Committee. Both Lukashenkos were forbidden to attend the Tokyo Games because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is investigating complaints of reprisals and intimidation against athletes who protested against the regime.

Tsimanouskaya dutifully packed her things and marched to Haneda Airport as ordered, but once there she refused to board the airplane, ditched her minders, and sought refuge with Japanese airport police.

“I will not return to Belarus,” she told Reuters via the encrypted messaging platform Telegram from the airport. “I think I am safe. I am with the police.” 

She later posted a video message to the public stating that Belarusan officials were “trying to get me out of the country without my permission.”

“No Belarusian who has left Belarus’ borders is safe because they can be kidnapped, just like Krystsina Tsimanouskaya or Roman Protasevich,” she wrote on Telegram, comparing her plight to that of the dissident blogger kidnapped along with his girlfriend by the Lukashenko regime in May after it forced a passenger jet to land in Minsk.

Japanese police became sufficiently concerned for her safety to move her to an undisclosed location and refuse a Japanese lawmaker’s request to visit her. 

Human rights activists on Sunday posted an audio recording of two Belarusan sports officials bullying Tsimanouskaya to return home, or at least shut her mouth and leave Tokyo. One of the voices in the recording was identified by Belarusan media as the head coach of the national track and field team, Yury Maisevich, while the other was reportedly a senior Belarusan Olympic official named Artur Shumak. 

“You just go home. Don’t write anything anywhere. Give no comments. I am giving you word-for-word what I was told,” one of the officials told a tearful Tsimanouskaya during the recorded phone call.

“If you want to continue to perform on behalf of the Republic of Belarus, just listen to what they recommend. Go home to your parents, or elsewhere. Let this situation go. Otherwise, the more you move, it’s like when a fly gets in a spiderweb: The more it turns around, the more it gets tangled,” he said ominously.

Tsimounaskaya was told during the call to return to Belarus without notifying her husband or family.

Tsimanouskaya pleaded for assistance from the IOC and the international community. Poland, France, and the Czech Republic made public offers of asylum, and on Monday she arrived at the Polish embassy in Tokyo to accept a humanitarian visa. She was met at the embassy by two women carrying a flag associated with the Belarusan opposition, some of whose members sought refuge in Poland after Lukashenko rigged the 2020 election to remain in power.

The leader of the opposition and purported true winner of the 2020 presidential election, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, thanked the IOC for helping Tsimanouskaya find sanctuary and said the Lukashenko regime should be investigated for its “violations of athlete’s rights.”

A senior adviser to Tsikhanouskaya on Monday accused the Lukashenko regime of “trying to put pressure on Krystina Tsimanouskaya by threatening her parents.” According to Krystina’s grandmother, Lukashenko’s siloviki (thugs) are converging on her hometown of Klimavichy.

The Polish Foreign Ministry said Monday that Tsimanouskaya plans to depart Japan for Poland soon, and promised to “do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career,” because “Poland always stands for Solidarity.”

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