Belarus Olympic runner who feared going home lands in Poland

In this image taken on Wednesday Aug. 4, 2021 and provided by the National Anti-crisis Management, Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, right, who seeks foreign refuge from Minsk authorities, poses for a photo with top Belarusian dissident in Poland, Pavel Latushko, left, shortly after her arrival at the Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland. (National Anti-crisis Management via AP)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who feared for her safety at home after criticizing her coaches on social media, flew into Warsaw on Wednesday night on a humanitarian visa after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, a Polish diplomat confirmed.

Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said the 24-year-old athlete had arrived in the Polish capital after flying in from Tokyo via Vienna, a route apparently chosen to confuse those who would endanger her safety. In a statement, the diplomat said he “wanted to thank all the Polish consular & diplomatic staff involved, who flawlessly planned and secured her safe journey.”

The plane that she was traveling on from Vienna was directed to a separate airport building in Warsaw used by government officials. Police vans were seen all over the airport. Passengers from the flight told reporters that one young woman was left on board as they exited the plane and were put on buses to the main terminal.

Tsimanouskaya later was seen with a top Belarusian dissident in Poland, Pavel Latushko, in a photo taken just after her arrival inside the airport building.

“We are glad that Kristina Timanovskaya managed to get to Warsaw safely!” Latushko said on Twitter, adding he hopes she will be able to return to a “New Belarus” and continue her career there.

In a dramatic weekend standoff at the Tokyo Games, Tsimanouskaya said Belarus team officials tried to force her to fly home early after she criticized them. She urged the International Olympic Committee to look into the dispute and some European countries stepped in to offer assistance.

It’s not clear what’s next for the runner — either in her sporting life or her personal one. Before she left Japan, she said she hoped to continue her running career but that safety was her immediate priority. Her husband fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning, and Poland has also offered him a visa.

“We are very happy that she is here safe,” said Magnus Brunner, a top Austrian government official, after Tsimanouskaya’s plane arrived in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon. “But she is scared about her future and about her family.”

At the Vienna airport, the runner was protected by Austrian police officers, public broadcaster ORF reported, and stayed in the transit area. Tsimanouskaya flew first to Austria instead of directly to Poland on the advice of Polish authorities for security reasons, said Vadim Krivosheyev of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation.

The drama began after Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of how officials were managing her team set off a massive backlash in state-run media in Belarus, where the government has relentlessly stifled any criticism. The runner said on Instagram that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200 meters.

She accused team officials of hustling her to the Tokyo airport but she refused to board a plane home and was protected by Japanese security.

The officials “made it clear that, upon return home, I would definitely face some form of punishment,” Tsimanouskaya told the AP in a videocall from Tokyo on Tuesday. “There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”

The sprinter called on international sports authorities “to investigate the situation, who gave the order, who actually took the decision that I can’t compete anymore.” She suggested possible sanctions against the head coach.

Reached by phone, Dzmitry Dauhalionak, the head of Belarus’ delegation at the Tokyo Olympics, declined to comment.

The standoff has drawn more attention to Belarus’ uncompromising authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following a presidential election that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded by arresting some 35,000 people and beating thousands of demonstrators. In recent months the government has orchestrated a strong crackdown on independent media and opposition figures.

President Alexander 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.

And his government has shown it is willing to go to extreme lengths to target its critics. In May, Belarus authorities diverted a European passenger jet to the capital of Minsk, where they arrested an opposition journalist on board.

In the AP interview, Tsimanouskaya expressed concern for her parents, who remain in Belarus.

Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, left for Ukraine shortly after the drama began. Poland has since issued him a humanitarian visa.

Amid Tsimanouskaya’s rift with team officials, two other Belarusian athletes announced their intention to stay abroad.

Heptathlete Yana Maksimava said she and her husband, Andrei Krauchanka, who won silver in the decathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, would remain in Germany.

“I’m not planning to return home after all the events that happened in Belarus,” Maksimava said on Instagram, adding that “you can lose not just your freedom but also your life” in her homeland.

Western leaders have condemned Tsimanouskaya’s treatment by Belarusian authorities.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Belarusian officials’ attempt to force Tsimanouskaya to return to Belarus for exercising free speech as “another act of transnational repression.”

“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated,” Blinken said on Twitter.

While Tsimanouskaya said she hoped to continue her sporting career, she could face lengthy procedures if she wants to compete under a different flag.

Tomasz Majewski, vice president of the Polish Athletics Association and twice an Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, voiced fears that Tsimanouskaya “will lose the best period of her career” if she changes citizenship.

“These are complicated matters. We know that there will be clear objections from the home team, which will probably make it difficult or even seek the disqualification of the athlete,” he said.