The Belarus Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has reportedly sought asylum in Poland after she was threatened with being bundled back to Minsk over her criticism of Olympic team officials.
On Monday, Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, confirmed to Sky News that he had fled the country and was currently in Kyiv. “I didn’t think it would get this serious. I made the decision to leave without thinking twice,” he told the TV station.
Tsimanouskaya, 24, was filmed arriving at the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday, where she is said to be seeking refuge from pressure by officials to return to Belarus. Dmitry Navosha, a sports journalist from Belarus and BSSF member, said she would buy a plane ticket to Warsaw for later this week.
“She has already applied for political asylum in Poland,” Alexander Opeikin, the acting director of BSSF, told the Russian-language broadcaster Current Time. “She is fine. She is managing well, it’s clear that this is a stressful situation not just for an athlete but for any person under this kind of pressure. This is a young woman put under pressure by experienced officials.”
The asylum application came hours after Tsimanouskaya was abruptly removed from competition after criticising her coaches for “negligence”. She wrote on Instagram that they had failed to secure the necessary doping tests for her fellow athletes and then entered her “behind [her] back” into the 4x400m relay.
On Sunday, she was abruptly removed from competition and spirited to the airport by team officials. But Tsimanouskaya refused to board the flight back to Minsk and sought police protection, indicating she would probably seek asylum in the west.
The incident shows how Alexander Lukashenko’s tightening grip on Belarusian society has spilled over into the world of sport, where dozens of athletes have faced imprisonment or reprisals for even careful criticism of the government. The dramatic events are also reminiscent of the high-profile defections of Soviet athletes at international competitions during the cold war, although there is nothing to suggest Tsimanouskaya was not planning to return to Belarus after the Games.
Leaked audio has appeared to show a Belarusian team coach and a Belarusian delegation member threatening Tsimanouskaya with reprisals if she did not return to Belarus immediately.
“If you want to compete again for Belarus, then listen to what I recommend: go home, to your parents, to wherever,” said a voice reported to belong to a member of the Belarusian delegation. “Let this situation go. Otherwise the more that you struggle, it will be like a fly caught in a spider’s web: the more it spins, the more it gets entangled.”
Tsimanouskaya could not immediately be reached for comment or to confirm the leaked audio.
But her decision to request asylum was also confirmed by Navosha, the BSSF member and prominent member of the Belarusian diaspora in Moscow.
“She’s under great stress,” said Navosha. “These have been very tough days … she’s been hit by very strong propaganda in Belarus, she gets messages, has been aggressively attacked on all the state TV stations. Her parents called her first and told her not to come home. Something awful is happening here. We’re asking you not to come back to Belarus.”
A number of European countries had offered to take in Tsimanouskaya. Poland and the Czech Republic, countries that have been strongly critical of the Lukashenko government, had offered asylum and the ability to continue competing in international sport. She was said to have sought asylum in Germany or Austria. “She spent the night deep in thought about where to go,” said Navosha. “We understand that most countries in Europe were open … but in the end she decided to go to Warsaw.”
On Monday, the International Olympic Committee spokesperson, Mark Adams, said the IOC and Tokyo 2020 had spoken to Tsimanouskaya directly and she had spent the night at an airport hotel.
“We were in touch with her last night and this morning and she feels safe and secure,” he said. “Our first duty of care is to her, and that is what we are carrying out. Overnight she went to the police station with someone from Tokyo 2020. And I understand that the UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is involved and the police are still engaged with this issue.”
When asked about claims of a “kidnap”, Adams said: “She talked to the police at the airport. If there is a criminal matter, it needs to be looked into but is a matter for the police.”
Belarus has closed its borders to most of its citizens seeking to travel abroad. It is not clear how Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseniy, managed to leave and travel to Ukraine. Thousands of activists have fled the country in recent months as Belarus’s crackdown has crushed opposition politicians and NGOs while demanding loyalty through the state bureaucracy, including in sport.
As of June, more than 60 athletes, coaches and others involved in sport had lost their jobs for taking part in last year’s protests against the Lukashenko government and elections fraud, Human Rights Watch reported. More than 20, including a star basketball player, have been among those detained.