Belarusian Olympic athlete says ‘punishment’ awaited her at home

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya alleges threats from officials and calls for a probe into her Olympics withdrawal.

Tsimanouskaya's case focused renewed attention on political discord in Belarus [File: Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters]

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is alleging that officials from her country “made it clear” she would face punishment upon returning home from the Tokyo Games after she criticised her team’s management.

The 24-year-old sprinter refused to fly home from Tokyo on Sunday, alleging that her team had hustled her to the Japanese capital’s Haneda airport and was trying to force her on board a flight destined for Minsk via Istanbul against her wishes.

“They made it clear that upon return home I would definitely face some form of punishment,” she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”

Tsimanouskaya sought the protection of Japanese police after refusing to fly home and on Monday headed to Poland’s embassy in the Japanese capital.

Poland granted her a humanitarian visa and she plans to fly to Warsaw later in the week, where she expects to be reunited with her husband.

The Polish embassy in Tokyo, the Japanese government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) have all said Tsimanouskaya is “safe” in the meantime. On Tuesday, the IOC announced a formal investigation into the incident and said it expected a report later in the day from the Belarusian team on Tsimanouskaya’s case.

Tsimanouskaya calls for probe

The standoff began after Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of how officials were managing her team set off a huge backlash in state-run media in Belarus.

The runner said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4×400 metres relay even though she has never raced in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200 metres.

Tsimanouskaya waged – and lost – a legal fight to run in that race. The Court of Arbitration for Sport said in a statement that it denied Tsimanouskaya’s request for an interim ruling that would have allowed her to run at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on Monday.

The heats were held in the morning and the semifinals were in the evening.

Tsimanouskaya called on Tuesday for a thorough investigation into her withdrawal from the Tokyo Games and “possibly taking sanctions against the head coach who approached me and who deprived me of the right to compete”.

She said she wanted international sports authorities to probe the situation, and look into “who gave the order, [and] who actually took the decision that I can’t compete anymore.”

Tsimanouskaya stopped short of calling for action against the Belarusian Olympic team, however, stating the athletes “aren’t guilty of anything and … should keep competing”.

“I don’t think there should be any sanctions against the athletes,” she said.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee has previously said coaches decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the games on doctors’ advice about her “emotional, [and] psychological state”.

‘Transnational repression’

Tsimanouskaya said she believed she would be kicked off of the national team as a result of events in recent days, but added that she hoped to be able to continue running in the future.

“For now I just want to safely arrive in Europe … meet with people who have been helping me and make a decision what to do next,” Tsimanouskaya said.

“[But] I would very much like to continue my sporting career because I’m just 24 and I had plans for two more Olympics at least,” she added.

Tsimanouskaya’s case has focused renewed attention on political discord in Belarus, run by longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.

The saga came as police in Ukraine said a missing Belarusian activist had been found hanged in a park in the capital, Kyiv, and that a murder probe had been opened.

Belarusian authorities have relentlessly cracked down on dissent following a wave of protests triggered by an August 2020 election that was denounced by the country’s political opposition and Western countries as rigged.

Lukashenko, in office since 1994, denies the allegations.

Critics of his government, including the United States, have condemned authorities’ actions concerning Tsimanouskaya.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday accused Belarus of an “act of transnational repression” over the alleged attempt to force her home.

“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated,” he tweeted.

Poland, which is another staunch opponent of Lukashenko’s administration and has become home to a growing number of Belarusian dissidents, meanwhile denounced what it branded a “criminal attempt” to kidnap the athlete.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies