Japan says Belarus athlete safe as US, EU condemn Lukashenko

Sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya who refused her team’s orders to return home has been granted a Polish humanitarian visa and will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, of Belarus, runs in the women's 100-metre run at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021 [File: Petr David Josek/ AP]

Japan said on Tuesday that it is keeping a Belarusian Olympian who took refuge in the Polish embassy “safe” as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a formal investigation into the incident and the United States condemned Belarus’s attempts to send her home as intolerable “transnational repression”.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, sought police protection on Sunday during a Tokyo airport standoff to avoid returning to Belarus, where she believes her life would be in danger.

The sprinter, who said she was taken to the airport against her will because she had criticised her team’s coaching staff, has now been granted a humanitarian visa by Poland.

Her supporters say she will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday and that her husband, Arseni Zhdanevich will join her there.

In the meantime, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on Tuesday: “We, in cooperation with relevant parties, are trying to keep her safe”.

“She is now in a safe situation,” he added.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya enters the Polish embassy in Tokyo, Japan, August 2, 2021. [Kim Kyung-Hoon/ Reuters]

The incident has focused attention on Belarus, where police have cracked down on dissent following a wave of protests triggered by an election last year which the opposition says was rigged to keep President Alexander Lukashenko in power.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet that the Lukashenko government “sought to commit another act of transnational repression” by “attempting to force Olympian Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya to leave simply for exercising free speech”.

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

The European Union, meanwhile, welcomed Poland’s decision to grant Tsimanouskaya a visa and said the repatriation attempt was further evidence of “brutal repression” by the Belarusian president.

In Tokyo, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters on Tuesday that the body had spoken to the athlete twice on Monday, that she was in a safe, secure place. He said the IOC needed to know all the facts before taking further action.

“We are expecting and have asked for a report from the National Olympic Committee of Belarus for today (Tuesday),” Adams said, adding the IOC was still gathering the facts. “We want it (report) today. We have decided to launch a formal investigation. We need to establish the full facts. We need to hear everyone involved.”

Asked whether an IOC decision on the matter would come during the Games, Adams said it was not possible to estimate how long the investigation would take.

“That obviously can take time. We need to get to be bottom of it. How long that will take I do not know,” he said.

‘Order from above’

The sprinter told a Reuters reporter via Telegram that the Belarusian head coach had turned up at her room on Sunday at the athletes’ village and told her she had to leave.

“The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me,” she wrote in the message. “At 5 (pm) they came my room and told me to pack and they took me to the airport.”

But she refused to board the plane and sought the protection of Japanese police.

Tsimanouskaya, who had been due to compete in the 200-metre sprint, said she had been removed from the team because she had spoken out about what she described as the negligence of their coaches.

She had complained on Instagram that she had been entered in the 4×400 metre relay after some team members were found to be ineligible to compete at the Olympics because they had not undergone sufficient doping tests.

“And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge,” Tsimanouskaya said.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee said coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Belarus athletics head coach Yuri Moisevich told state television he “could see there was something wrong with her … She either secluded herself or didn’t want to talk”.

A Warsaw-based Belarusian opposition politician, Pavel Latushko, told Reuters that Belarus officials had told Tsimanouskaya’s mother that her daughter was a spy for Western governments and that someone from Lukashenko’s office approached the mother and asked her to persuade the athlete to come home.

Following her withdrawal from the Games, Tsimanouskaya requested the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn Belarus Olympic officials’ refusal to let her race in the 200 metres.

But the court said in a statement on Tuesday that Tsimanouskaya “was not able to prove her case to get an interim relief”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies