Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who plans to seek refuge in Europe after accusing team officials of trying to force her to leave the Tokyo Games early, said Tuesday that officials from her country “made it clear” she would face punishment if she returned home.
Tsimanouskaya, who had criticized the management of her team on social media, said officials hustled her to the airport and tried to put her on a plane back to Belarus, where the autocratic government has relentlessly stifled dissent and any criticism. She said she hopes to continue her career, but for now her safety remains a priority.
In the dramatic standoff, several countries offered her help, and Poland granted her a humanitarian visa Monday. She plans to fly to Warsaw later in the week, according to an activist group that is helping her.
“They made it clear that upon return home I would definitely face some form of punishment,” the 24-year-old sprinter told The Associated Press in a videocall interview. “There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”
She added that she believed she would be kicked off of the national team. She hopes to be able to continue running once she has reached safety.
“For now I just want to safely arrive in Europe … meet with people who have been helping me and make a decision what to do next,” Tsimanouskaya said in the interview.
“I would very much like to continue my sporting career because I’m just 24 and I had plans for two more Olympics at least,” she said. “For now, the only thing that concerns me is my safety.”
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The standoff began after Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of how officials were managing her team set off a massive backlash in state-run media back home. The runner said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200 meters.
Tsimanouskaya waged — and lost — a legal fight to run in that race. The Court of Arbitration for Sport said in a statement that it denied Tsimanouskaya’s request for an interim ruling that would have allowed her to run at the Olympic Stadium on Monday. The heats were held in the morning and the semifinals were in the evening.
On Tuesday, Tsimanouskaya called for an investigation and “possibly taking sanctions against the head coach who approached me and who deprived me of the right to compete in the Olympic Games.” She said she wanted international sports authorities “to investigate the situation, who gave the order, who actually took the decision that I can’t compete anymore.”
At the same time, she said that “the athletes aren’t guilty of anything and they should keep competing, and I don’t think there should be any sanctions against the athletes.”
The rapid-fire series of events brought international political intrigue to an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to holding the event at all.
Belarus’ authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone even mildly expressing dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests. And it has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including recently diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident journalist aboard.