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Athletics Belarusian athlete seeks asylum in Poland after criticising team officials

BELARUSIAN Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is seeking asylum in Poland, an activist group said today, after the athlete alleged that her team’s officials tried to force her to fly home, where she feared she would be targeted by the government.

Tsimanouskaya received a humanitarian visa from the Polish embassy in Tokyo, according to a Polish Foreign Ministry official. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an activist group that is helping the runner, said that the group bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for August 4.

The current stand-off apparently began after Tsimanouskaya openly criticised how officials were managing her team — setting off a massive backlash in state-run media back home, where authorities have cracked down hard on government critics since a disputed election last year resulted in mass protests backed by the West.

Tsimanouskaya said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event.

She was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board a flight for Istanbul and instead approached police for help. In a filmed message distributed on social media, she also asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for assistance.

“I was put under pressure, and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” the 24-year-old runner said in the message.

The rapid-fire series of events brought international political intrigue to an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to holding the event at all.

Belarus’s government accuses neighbours including Poland, which hosts and has financially assisted opposition media, of fomenting unrest aimed at regime change and has gone to great lengths to apprehend critics – including a recent plane diversion leading to the arrest of a fascist journalist that European officials called an act of air piracy.

Tsimanouskaya says she feared for her safety once she saw the campaign against her in state media, according to the sports foundation.

“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation, said.

Vadim Krivosheyev, also of the foundation, said she planned to seek asylum.

Underscoring the seriousness of the allegations, several groups and countries say they are helping the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic offered assistance, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was working with the IOC and the Tokyo Olympics organisers.

The IOC, which has been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo Games, said it had intervened.

“The IOC … is looking into the situation and has asked the NOC for clarification,” it said in a statement.

Many critics of Belarus’s government have fled to Poland. Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said on Twitter that Tsimanouskaya was granted a humanitarian visa Monday. “Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career. Poland always stands for Solidarity,” he said, a reference to the trade union-based movement that campaigned against communism in the 1980s.

Outside the Polish embassy today, two exiled Belarusian women who live in Tokyo offered the runner support. They waved a flag that was a mix of the opposition’s banner and the Japanese flag.

Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek also tweeted that the Czech Republic has offered her asylum.

“If she decides to accept it, we’ll do our maximum to help her,” he wrote.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Viktor.

Both Lukashenkos are banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation during the crackdown following the wave of anti-government protests over the last year.

A spokeswoman for the Belarus Olympic team did not respond to a request for comment.

The standoff over Tsimanouskaya comes just months after the dramatic diversion of a passenger plane flying between two EU countries. Belarusian authorities were accused of ordering the plane to land in Minsk — pulling journalist Raman Pratasevich, who had previously served with Ukraine’s neonazi Azov Battalion, and his Russian girlfriend off the flight.

The elder Lukashenko maintained that there was a bomb threat against the plane and that’s why a fighter jet was scrambled to force it to land, but the move was roundly criticised by Western leaders.

Amid today’s drama, Tsimanouskaya missed the Olympic 200-metre heats that she was due to participate in. She had already competed for Belarus on the first day of track events on Friday at Japan’s National Stadium in Tokyo. She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 metres, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.


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