In an interview with Al Jazeera, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, the Belarusian Olympian defector who missed her moment at the Tokyo Games, explained why she is auctioning one of her medals to support other Belarusian athletes and recounted her recent ordeal.
“I made the decision to put my medal up for auction to help athletes that are in need of support or any kind of help and the money will go to the [Belarusian] Sports Solidarity Foundation. In turn, the foundation will help athletes organise gatherings and competitions,” the 24-year-old sprinter told Al Jazeera’s podcast show, The Take.
Tsimanouskaya caught the world’s attention on August 1, when she refused to obey her team’s orders to leave Tokyo early and board a Belarus-bound plane, saying she feared for her safety in her homeland.
The officials say she was suffering mental health issues, a claim she denies.
“Had I returned to Belarus, two things could have happened. I would either be sent to a psychiatric hospital or to jail,” she told Al Jazeera.
She had trained for the 200m sprint, but the drama meant she did not participate in her Olympics race this year.
The silver medal she is parting with, awarded from the team relay at the 2nd European Games 2019 in Minsk, has gone up for auction on eBay, with a starting price of $21,000. So far, there is one bid.
Journey from Tokyo
Tsimanouskaya, 24, says that in Tokyo, her coaches asked her to run an additional distance race – the 4x400m relay – because other team members were ruled out having not had enough doping tests.
“I tried to inquire about it with the head coaches who simply ignored me. At that moment, I felt complete disrespect towards me and my hard work. Emotions took over and I spoke out about it on my Instagram.”
After she went public on Instagram, the coaches held discussions with her.
“And then, they came to my room and said that an order had come in to remove me from the Olympics and not let me compete in the 200m, and that I had to be sent home, and that I had to say that I got an injury, return home and be silent so that I wouldn’t be punished.”
What followed was a frightening and confusing journey.
“That day, the head coach came and said I had literally 40 minutes to pack my things and go home.”
She was desperate.
“I was playing for time, I was talking to my relatives, to my grandma.”
Her grandmother, she said, was in Belarus, trying to understand the situation.
“My grandma, at that moment, was watching the television and saw what kind of things they were saying about me, that I have problems with my psychological health, and so on. Still, we decided that I will return to Minsk.”
Then, on the way to the airport, that decision changed.
“Once I had already left for the car … my grandma called me back and said that I cannot go to Minsk because it is not safe there for me. She was warned about what is awaiting me at home.”
Once at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, she managed to speak with Japanese police using a translation app on her phone.
She got away from the Belarusian officials and did not board the flight to Minsk.
She later found her way to the Polish embassy, which granted her a humanitarian visa.
“Right now, I am in Poland. Here I am completely safe,” she said.
Poland also provided a visa for her husband, who arrived from Belarus.
“My husband is with me and the country is doing everything it can so I can continue with my sports career here,” she said.
Warsaw has “provided us with everything that’s necessary to live in total safety while we are here in Poland,” she added.
Last week, two Belarusian Olympic coaches, Yuri Moisevich and team official, Artur Shumak were asked to leave the Olympic village after asking Tsimanouskaya to end her moment at the Olympics early, before she was able to compete in her event.
Thousands have been arrested in Belarus over the past year after a contested election on August 9 last year.
Detractors of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko accuse him of stealing the election and ordering the arrests.
Lukashenko rejects claims that he is an autocrat and says Tsimanouskaya was manipulated.
On Monday, the United States announced new sanctions on Belarus’s Olympic Committee for evading existing sanctions and money laundering. The committee, led by Victor Lukashenko, the president’s son, dismissed the sanctions as baseless.
Kiryl, a Belarusian living in Vilnius, Lithuania, said he believes the orders to force Tsimanouskaya to return came from the top.
“I believe that Belarus deserves to be stripped of the right to participate in the Olympics under its own flag,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I do hate to see my country as an outcast or the world, but I have to admit that all of this is of our government’s own doing. And the reaction from the global community is completely deserved.”
The Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation said it plans to use the money from Tsimanouskaya’s medal to support repressed Belarusian athletes.
The foundation, which supports dissenting athletes under pressure over their views, says it works to stop violence and human rights violations by security forces.
Its website says: “Security forces and agencies directors who gave the illegal orders and are responsible for the violence, must resign, face an independent court of law, and be sentenced in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus.”
Back in Poland, Tsimanouskaya said she has little time to read the news but she has, once again, started to run.
“Sport hardens me and hardens my character, and makes me stronger every day. Because every day you have to train, in difficult situations sport gives me a reason not to give up.”