A Belarusian sprinter at the Tokyo Olympics has taken refuge in Poland’s embassy in Japan after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will having criticised her country’s coaches.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who earlier said on social media that she had been entered into the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced the event, has applied for and been granted a humanitarian visa, Polish officials said.
“According to her words, she’s planning to come to Poland, and was invited by us,” Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister told the Financial Times.
Tsimanouskaya, who was due to compete in the heats for the women’s 200m event on Monday, had stayed at a hotel in Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday after seeking “protection” from local authorities.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s brutal leader, has been roundly criticised after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and embarked on a campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival.
The IOC banned Lukashenko from attending the Tokyo Games along with other national officials, including his son Viktor, president of the country’s Olympic committee.
The sanctions were imposed after Belarusian athletes accused authorities of political discrimination and imprisonment. The IOC has also frozen payments to the Belarus Olympic Committee other than those paid directly to athletes.
Although Tsimanouskaya has not directly criticised Lukashenko, Belarusian media have castigated the 24 year old athlete.
“This scandal did not start out as a political one but has become one due to the extremely heavy-handed response to her statements which have included vicious attacks on her reputation by Belarusian state media and then the attempt to force her to fly home from Tokyo,” Eleanor Bindman, an eastern European politics expert at Manchester Metropolitan University, said.
The incident “reflects Lukashenko’s paranoia about anything or anyone that could be seen as critical of his beleaguered regime”, she added.
Tsimanouskaya had previously said she was afraid of being arrested if she returned to Belarus and that she feared for her family back home.
Her husband Arseny Zdanevich has since reportedly left Belarus for Ukraine.
“Where did I go? Kiev, but I will not give details,” he told Sport Express, a Russian sports portal.
Tsimanouskaya was separately offered a visa by the Czech Republic, which, like Poland, has been among the most outspoken critics of Lukashenko. Jakub Kulhanek, Czech foreign minister, earlier said Tsimanouskaya’s situation was “scandalous”.
Tsimanouskaya had used her social media accounts to criticise coaches who she said registered her for events for which she had not trained as other Belarusian athletes had not completed enough anti-doping tests to compete.
Katsunobu Kato, a Japanese government spokesperson, said Tokyo was working with the IOC and other local authorities to determine the athlete’s intentions. The IOC said it had requested a report from the Belarus Olympic Committee before deciding whether to take further action.
The Japanese police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s opposition leader, told the Financial Times that “what happened to Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is part of the wider crackdown against athletes in Belarus. Today, any criticism of authorities — even sports leadership — is considered an attack on the government.”
The IOC said it was still working to determine how Tsimanouskaya left the athletes’ village. It said the sprinter appeared to have travelled to the airport with a group of about 16 Belarusian athletes set to leave Japan after their events ended.
The IOC said it was unclear if other Belarusian officials or coaches had accompanied her to the airport.
Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appeared to show Tsimanouskaya refusing to board a plane.
The Belarus Olympic Committee did not respond to a request for comment but a statement attributed to the organisation suggested that Tsimanouskaya had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors about her “emotional, psychological state”.
In response, Tsimanouskaya posted that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”
“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they [Belarusian officials] are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport.