Belarusian runner used quick thinking to avoid being sent home

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In this image taken on Wednesday August 4, 2021 and provided by National Anti-Crisis Management, Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, right, who seeks refuge abroad with authorities in Minsk, poses for a photo with the most Senior Belarusian dissident in Poland Pavel Latushko, left, shortly after arriving at Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland. Fearing for his safety at home after criticizing his coaches on social media, Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo to Warsaw with a stopover in Vienna. Poland offered her and her husband humanitarian visas. (National anti-crisis management via AP)

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A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who feared retaliation in her country after publicly criticizing her coaches at the Tokyo Games resorted to quick thinking for help, using her phone to translate a plea and show it to Japanese police then that she was trying to avoid being forced into a plane.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Thursday described a series of dramatic events at the Olympics that led her to decide not to return to Belarus, where an authoritarian government relentlessly pursues its critics. Instead, she fled to Poland, arriving on Wednesday.

After posting a social media post criticizing the way his team was being run, Tsimanouskaya said he was told to pack his bags. Team officials told her to say she was injured and had to go home early.

On the way to the airport, she spoke briefly to her grandmother, who explained that there had been a massive backlash against her in the media in Belarus, including reports that she was mentally ill. Her grandmother, she says, advised her not to come back. Her parents suggested she go to Poland.

At the airport, she enlisted the help of the police, using Google Translate to convey her plea in Japanese. At first they did not understand and a Belarusian official asked what was going on. She claimed that she forgot something at the Olympic Village and had to come back. The police eventually took her away from Belarusian officials.

As the drama unfolded, European countries offered to help her and the runner ended up at the Polish Embassy, ​​where she was given a humanitarian visa. Many Belarusian activists fled to Poland to avoid a brutal crackdown on dissent by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted to say “reassured to see athlete Krystsina #Tsimanouskaya arrived safe and sound in Poland”. countries due to the actions of the Lukashenko regime and the Olympic truce were violated.

At a press conference in Warsaw on Thursday, Tsimanouskaya thanked those who supported her during the standoff.

“It was the whole world, and these people make me a lot stronger,” she said. She added that she feels safe now.

She also had a message for her Belarusian compatriots.

“I want to tell all Belarusians not to be afraid and, if they are under pressure, to speak up,” said the runner, who spoke in English and Russian at the press conference.

Still, she expressed concern for the safety of her family at home. Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife announced she would not be returning. Poland also granted him a visa.

Events have drawn more attention to Belarus’s hardline authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following an election that gave Lukashenko a sixth term but which the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded with sweeping crackdowns. Some 35,000 people were arrested and thousands of demonstrators beaten. The government has also targeted independent media and opposition figures.

As a sign of efforts the authorities are prepared to make to silence their critics, Belarusian officials hijacked an airliner to the capital Minsk in May and arrested a dissident journalist on board.

While Tsimanouskaya’s criticisms have been aimed at team officials, his challenge may not be suitable for political authorities. Lukashenko, who led the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for nearly a quarter of a century before handing over the post to his son in February, has a keen interest in the sport, seeing it as a key part of national prestige.

But Tsimanouskaya insisted that she was not a political activist, that she had never intended to flee Belarus and that she only wanted to be allowed to compete in her favorite event at the Olympics. . The stalemate began after she complained that she had to compete in a race she had never done before.

Tsimanouskaya called for an investigation into what happened, and the International Olympic Committee said it had opened disciplinary proceedings “to establish the facts” in his case.

The main opposition challenger to Lukashenko in the disputed elections last August said Tsimanouskaya’s case shows how far his government will go.

“The message now is that even if you are not involved in an opposition movement, even if you have never participated in any demonstration, but you are showing your disloyalty to the regime because you are not d ‘okay with the actions, you are attacked, “Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. told The Associated Press in an interview.

The 24-year-old said she hadn’t thought about seeking political asylum and hoped to return home one day, when it is safe. She also said she wanted to know soon how she could further her career. She said she would speak with Polish officials on Friday about her next steps.

“I just wanted to run in the Olympics, it was my dream,” she said. “I still hope this is not the last Olympics of my life.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/belarus


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