Belarusian sprinter sent home from Olympics by Belarusian officials says she will ask for asylum

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo's Haneda airport on August 1, 2021. Screenshot from video by Reuters on YouTube.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya speaks to police at Tokyo's Haneda airport on August 1, 2021. Screenshot from online video by Reuters.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarusian athlete competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, was reportedly told to return home and taken to the airport against her will by Belarusian officials after criticising the Belarusian team's coaches. The sprinter refused to get on the flight home and says returning to Belarus may land her in prison.

Tsimanouskaya ran in the women's 100 metres heats on July 30 and was scheduled to run in the 200 metres heats on August 2, as well as the 4×400 metres relay on August 5.

A few days ago, the 24-year-old sprinter had complained in a post on Instagram that she was not aware she had been signed up to run the relay race, did not train for it, and criticised her coaches for making the decision behind her back. She later deleted the videos after being pressured by Belarusian sports officials.

On Sunday, August 1, according to Tsimanouskaya, the Belarusian coaches came to her room and told her to pack her things. She was then taken to the Tokyo Haneda airport by representatives of the Belarusian Olympic team. According to Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova, at the airport the athlete refused to get on her transit flight to Turkey and sought police protection.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee said in a statement on Facebook that coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Olympics based on doctors’ advice about her “emotional, psychological state”. However, the athlete denied that she had been examined by doctors and told reporters she had been removed from the team because she had publicly criticised “the negligence of our coaches” on Instagram.

Tadeusz Giczan, an editor with Belarusian independent media-in-exile Nexta TV, posted on Twitter a video appeal to Olympics officials that Tsimanouskaya recorded while at the airport.

According to later updates by Giczan, the Turkish Airlines flight took off without the Belarusian athlete, who remained at the airport under police protection and was awaiting Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry representatives. In a phone interview to Belarusian sports website Tribuna, Tsimanouskaya said she was afraid she might face imprisonment in Belarus.

Я боюсь, что в Беларуси меня, возможно, могут посадить в тюрьму. Я не боюсь того, что меня уволят или выгонят из нацкоманды. Я беспокоюсь о своей безопасности. И думаю, что на данный момент в Беларуси для меня небезопасно.

I am afraid that in Belarus I might possibly be imprisoned. I’m not afraid of being kicked out of the national team or being fired. I don't think it's safe for me to be in Belarus at the moment.

The sprinter's actions have drawn a wave of criticism from Belarusian state media, while social media users and civil society have spoken out against state pressure on athletes.

A spokesperson for the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an organisation supporting Belarusian athletes jailed or pressured for their political views, told Reuters Tsimanouskaya intended to request asylum in Germany or Austria.

A number of Belarusian athletes who had supported the protests following the falsified August 2020 presidential elections in the country have been detained, jailed or stripped of national team membership. Prominent personalities currently in prison include Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and decathlete Andrei Krauchanka.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which manages the Olympic Games, said it was aware of the media reports and was looking into Tsimanouskaya's case. In a tweet, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya welcomed IOC's reaction and said it was important to investigate Belarusian Olympic committee's violations of athletes’ rights.

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