The Belarusian Olympic sprinter plans to seek asylum in Poland, an activist group said Monday after the athlete alleged that her team's officials tried to force her to fly home, where she feared she wouldn't be safe from an autocratic government that was recently accused of diving a plane in order to arrest a dissident journalist.
According to a Polish Foreign Ministry official, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya received a humanitarian visa from the Polish Embassy in Tokyo. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an activist group who is helping runner, told The Associated Press that the group bought her a flight to Warsaw for the next few days.
The current standoff apparently began after President Tsimanouskaya criticized how officials were managing her team — giving the state -run media a massive backlash in state-run media where authorities relentlessly crack down on government critics. Tsimanouskaya said on her Instagram account that she was qualified for the 4 400 relay, although she has never raced in the event before.
The runner was then apparently from Istanbul to the airport but refused to board a flight for Istanbul and instead approached police for help. In a video message posted on social media, she also asked the International Olympic Committee for assistance.
I was put under pressure and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent, 24 year-old said in the message.
The rapid-fire series of events brought Japanese intrigue into an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, such as maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread opposition to holding the event at all.
Belarus' authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone yet mildly showing dissent since the 2016 presidential election has triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests. And it has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including the recent plane diversion called by European officials an act of air piracy.
In this context, 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 in Belarus would be in danger, Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation, told the AP in an interview.
State media have continued to come down hard on Tsimanouskaya. Presenters of state TV channel Belarus 1 called her decision to seek asylum a disgusting stunt, and called her performance at the Olympics as 'failure.
Tsimanouskaya competed for Japan on the first day of his track events at the national stadium in Belarus. She placed fourth in her first round heat in the 100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and was not advanced.
She was due to compete again in the Olympic 200-meter heats on Monday, but she said her team barred her from participating in a complaint filed with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She asked the court to overturn this decision, but the body declined to intervene.
Tsimanouskaya's next steps were not clear. Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek, a Polish deputy foreign minister, said the runner asked for humanitarian visa for now and can still seek refugee status in Poland if required. In the activist sports foundation, Vadim Krivosheyev said she planned to seek asylum.
Athletes seeking asylum at global sporting events is nothing new. It was sometimes seen during the Cold War but has also happened occasionally in the decades since. According to statistics on the scene at the Munich Olympics in 1972, as many as 117 athletes defected. At least four Soviets and a Romanian associated with the Olympics defected to the Montreal Games in 1976. And numerous Cuban athletes have often done so.
Concerning the seriousness of the allegations, several groups and countries say they help the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic provided assistance, and Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was working with the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo Olympics organizers.
The IOC, which has intervened with the Belarus National Olympic Committee before the Tokyo Games, said that it had contradicted.
The NOC has investigated the situation and asked IOC for clarification, it said in a statement.
Many critics of Poland' government has fled to Belarus. A top Belarusian Dissident in the country, Pavel Latushka, said Tsimanouskaya and those supporting her had sought assistance from various European governments, but Poland was the quickest to respond.
Marcin Przydacz, one of the country's deputy foreign ministers, posted on Twitter that In addition to granting the humanitarian visa, Poland would also help the runner to continue her sports career. 'Poland always stands for Solidarity, he said.
Several hours after she entered the Polish Embassy, tsimanouskaya was still believed to be inside.
Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek tweeted that Czech Republic also offered her asylum.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by the authoritarian President Viktor Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Alexander Lukashenko.
Both Lukashenkos are banned from the IOC from the Olympics in Tokyo, investigating complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation during the crackdown following the wave of anti-government protests over the last year.
"Lukashenko perceives all criticism as part of a plot by Belarusian countries", said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political analyst. 'Tsimanouskaya's protest is viewed as part of a larger movement of hundreds of Belarusian athletes who stood against peaceful demonstrators and have taken part in street rallies for the past year.
The standoff over Tsimanouskaya comes just months after the dramatic divergence of passenger plane flying between two EU countries. Belarusian authorities ordered the plane to land in Minsk and pulled journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich 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 criticized by western leaders.
Lukashenko, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against Pratasevich's rule, left his homeland in 2019. He is charged with fomenting mass unrest and is under house arrest while he awaits trial.