Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya walked into the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday morning after being assured she would be granted asylum to avoid being forcibly returned to her home country.
In an interview with Reuters via Telegram messaging service, she said had been awakened early Sunday inside the Olympics Village and told she had to return to Belarus, despite being scheduled to compete in 200-meter heats Monday. “The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me,” she wrote to Reuters. “At 5 they came my room and told me to pack and they took me to the airport.”
At the airport, she refused to board a Turkish Airline flight to Minsk, and alerted IOC authorities that she feared for her safety. “I will not return to Belarus,” she told Reuters.
The 24-year-old is the latest in a string of high-profile Belarusians who have been under threat for criticizing the widely disputed re-election of longtime autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko. On May 23, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was essentially hijacked to Minsk after being dubiously informed there was a bomb on board. The emergency landing turned out to be a ploy to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who were on board.
Fearing similar repercussions for outspoken athletes at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation was created to keep an eye on situations like Tsimanouskaya’s near forcible return. The group helped facilitate a dialogue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on her behalf. Both Poland and the Czech Republic soon publicly offered her asylum. Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Przydacz tweeted that Tsimanouskaya was “offered a humanitarian visa and is free to pursue her sporting career in Poland if she so chooses.”
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek called the threat to the athlete “scandalous,” tweeting “The Czech Republic is ready to help.” and “We are offering her a visa to enter the territory so that she can apply for international protection with us. Our embassy in Tokyo is also ready to help.”
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said Monday that he supported her decisions. “Political asylum—it would be an honour for Europe to do so,” he said.
On Monday IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said the runner was “safe” but did not elaborate on the Olympic body’s involvement. “She has assured us she is safe and secure. We are talking again to her this morning to understand what the next steps will be,” Adams said at a news conference. “We need to listen to her, find out what she wants, and support her in her decision.”
Defending its move to bring the sprinter home, the Belarusian Olympic Committee instead claimed that it pulled her from the competition to bring her home because of her “emotional, psychological state.” Head Coach Yuri Moisevich, in an interview on Belarus state television, said he “could see there was something wrong with her,” adding “she either secluded herself or didn’t want to talk.”
The move to protect the athlete will surely strain already tense relations between an increasingly isolated Belarus and the rest of Europe. The IOC refused to accept Belarus’s decision to put Lukashenko’s son Victor at the helm of the Belarus Olympic committee. The tension led to the banning of both Lukashenkos from attending the Games.