Belarus sprinter who feared reprisals at home reaches Poland

Aug 4, 2021, 3:35 PM | Updated: Aug 5, 2021, 4:14 am

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who feared reprisals at home after criticizing her coaches at the Tokyo Games has reached safety in Poland following a dramatic standoff.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, in a blue sweater and jeans, walked off a plane in Warsaw on Wednesday night, days after she accused team officials of trying to force her to fly back to Belarus, where an authoritarian government has relentlessly pursued its critics.

In footage posted on Facebook, the runner could be seen smiling as she spoke to a Polish official in a VIP section of the airport and also hugging a Belarus opposition leader. Many of the country’s activists have fled to Poland to avoid a brutal crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

In rapid-fire series of events that brought international drama to the Tokyo Games, Tsimanouskaya said Belarus team officials hustled her to the airport and tried to send her home early after she criticized how her team was being managed. She refused to board the plane, and European countries that are critical of Lukashenko’s rule offered assistance. The Polish government eventually granted the athlete a humanitarian visa.

On Wednesday, Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo via Vienna, a circuitous route that Polish officials indicated was for security reasons.

It’s not clear what’s next for the 24-year-old runner — either in her sporting life or her personal one.

She has urged the International Olympic Committee to look into the dispute and said she hopes to continue her running career. But she added that her priority would be her own safety. She was expected to appear at a news conference in Warsaw later Thursday.

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

In a sign of the lengths authorities are willing to go to silence their critics, Belarus officials diverted a passenger jet to the capital of Minsk in May and arrested a dissident journalist who was on board.

While Tsimanouskaya’s criticism was aimed at team officials — she complained that she was scheduled to participate in an event she had never competed in — her defiance may have not sit well with political authorities. Lukashenko, who led the Belarus National Olympic Committee for almost a quarter-century before handing over the job to his son in February, has a keen interest in sports, seeing it as a key element of national prestige.

Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseni Zdanevich, fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning. Poland has also granted him a visa, and he is expected to join her.

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