A Belarusian Olympic sprinter has arrived at the Polish embassy in Tokyo after yesterday refusing to board a flight back to her home capital, Minsk.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, was seen entering the embassy this morning having spent the night in an airport hotel under Japanese police protection. She claims she was “seized by officials from her own country” after she “publicly complained about the national coaches”, Sky News reports.
Olympic officials have said she is “safe and secure”, while France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune has said it would be an “honour” if Europe were to grant her political asylum.
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‘Fly in a spiderweb’
Tsimanouskaya yesterday “refused her team’s order to fly home early” after Belarusian officials claimed she had been “removed from the team because of her emotional state”, the BBC reports.
The sprinter had been due to compete in the women’s 200m event today, but earlier “complained on social media about being entered into another race at short notice after some team-mates were found to be ineligible to compete”, the broadcaster adds.
In comments reported by Reuters, she said she “will not return to Belarus”, adding: “Some of our girls did not fly here to compete in the 4x400m relay because they didn’t have enough doping tests.
“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.”
Belarusian state television immediately attacked Tsimanouskaya, claiming that she “lacked team spirit”, while officials came to her room telling her she had an hour to pack her bags and fly home, according to a video posted in the messaging app Telegram.
In a leaked call between Tsimanouskaya and a Belarusian sports official, a man can be heard telling the sprinter that she should fly home and remain silent, adding that if she refuses “you’ll be like a fly in a spiderweb – the more you wriggle, the more stuck you become”. Tsimanouskaya is heard bursting into tears at the threat.
“They are trying to get me out of the country without my permission,” she said in the message posted on the channel of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), a group set up to support Belarusian athletes during last year’s protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.
On arriving at Tokyo airport, she “summoned Japanese police and refused to board the flight to Minsk via Istanbul”, Sky News says. Activists supporting her have said that “she believed her life was in danger in Belarus and she would seek asylum with the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo”.
The head of the BSSF, three-time Olympic swimming medallist Aliaksandra Herasimenia, told Reuters that Poland’s consulate was “the first to react” after the group “appealed to a number of countries for help”, adding: “We are ready to accept their help.”
The Belarusian National Olympic Committee has been asked “for a full report” into the issue, says The Guardian.
‘She feels safe’
A spokesperson for the IOC said that they had been in contact with Tsimanouskaya, tweeting that a member of IOC staff had accompanied her during her stay at an airport hotel overnight and that “she feels safe”.
However, the Belarusian authorities’ clash with Tsimanouskaya is not the first time the autocratic regime has found itself at loggerheads with its sporting community.
Amid anti-government protests last year, the Lukashenko government “unleashed a wave of unprecedented repressions against opposition supporters” leading to “over 4,000 criminal investigations into extremism or terrorism, which are the charges that the government typically uses against dissidents”, The Telegraph reports.
Lukashenko, who formerly headed the country’s Olympic committee before he was replaced by his son Viktor, has also been “banned from the Tokyo Games after the IOC received complaints from athletes about intimidation and reprisals”, Sky News says.
During the pro-democracy protests last year, Tsimanouskaya spoke out on Instagram against the “brutal crackdown”, The Telegraph says. She also signed a letter backed by members of the Belarusian athletics team stating: “We can’t tolerate this violence against our citizens, friends, colleagues and family any longer.
“We think the actions of the law enforcement agencies are unlawful and unacceptable.”
Japan also has a track record of defending sporting dissidents after last year becoming embroiled in a “political row” with Myanmar after Pyae Lyan Aung, the national team’s goalkeeper, gave an anti-government salute before a World Cup qualifying match, The Times reports.
The goalkeeper “asked for political asylum after he made a gesture of defiance against the country’s military junta”, the paper adds, before managing “to escape his official minders just before he was about to board a flight home”.
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