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Belarus Olympic athlete leaves Japan after Poland offers refuge

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has said she fears for her life if forced to return home; athlete’s problems began after she publicly criticized her coaches

Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (C) walks through Terminal 1 before boarding her Vienna-bound flight at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, outside Tokyo on August 4, 2021 (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (C) walks through Terminal 1 before boarding her Vienna-bound flight at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, outside Tokyo on August 4, 2021 (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

TOKYO (AFP) — Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya flew out of Japan on Wednesday and was expected to take refuge in Poland after saying she feared for her life if she was forced to return home.

The 24-year-old sprinter has been at the center of a diplomatic drama in the middle of the Games since seeking protection from Tokyo 2020 staff on Sunday, saying her team was trying to bundle her onto a plane after she publicly criticized her coaches.

And there was another unexpected twist on Wednesday, when the athlete made a last-minute switch and decided not to board her flight to Poland, which has offered her a humanitarian visa, instead taking a plane bound for Vienna.

Wearing a yellow facemask and with the pink ends of her hair visible in a bun, Tsimanouskaya entered the airport surrounded by a phalanx of security.

She declined to speak to media gathered at her gate, but waved as she rounded the corner toward her plane.

She had been sheltering in the Polish embassy in Tokyo for the past two nights after calling for international help, and activists have said she will go to Warsaw, but it was not clear if she would spend time in Austria first.

Belarus has been wracked by political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power last year.

Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2,000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter calling for new elections and for political prisoners to be freed.

But her trouble in Tokyo came after she posted on her Instagram, criticizing her coaches for entering her into a race without informing her first.

Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (R) waves goodbye as she boards her Vienna-bound flight at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, outside Tokyo on August 4, 2021 (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Her husband has now fled to Ukraine and the pair are expected to meet up in Poland, which is a staunch critic of Lukashenko’s regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday he had spoken to the “courageous” Tsimanouskaya, who is “currently well taken care of and safe.”

“I assured her that she can count on the support and solidarity of Poland. In the coming days, she will fly to Warsaw, where she will be able to thrive without obstacles and, if she so chooses, will receive further assistance,” he wrote on Facebook.

The International Olympic Committee has said it will investigate Belarus’s Olympic team over the incident, but activists have called for the country’s Olympic committee to be suspended and its athletes to compete as neutrals.

Spokesman Mark Adams said Wednesday that the IOC had received a report from Belarus’s Olympic committee, which was “being evaluated.” And he said the IOC has opened a disciplinary commission “to establish facts in this case.”

NGO Global Athlete said Tsimanouskaya’s “alleged kidnapping… is yet another example of the alarming athlete abuse occurring in Belarus.”

Lukashenko and his son Viktor have been banned from Olympic events over the targeting of athletes for their political views.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during an awarding ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, on July 2, 2021. (Vladimir Martsul/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Japan. “Think about it before going,” he said. “If you come back with nothing, it’s better for you not to come back at all.”

The alleged attempt to return Tsimanouskaya to Belarus has prompted condemnation, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Lukashenko’s government of “another act of transnational repression.”

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to arrest a dissident on board.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski seemed to reference that incident when he declined to confirm whether Tsimanouskaya would fly out on Wednesday as had been rumored, citing safety.

The Olympic saga came as police in Ukraine said a missing Belarusian activist, whose organization helps his compatriots flee the country, had been found hanged in a park in Kyiv.

Police said they had opened a murder probe and would pursue all leads including “murder disguised as suicide,” while activists accused authorities of “an operation… to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime.” The United Nations has called on Ukrainian authorities to conduct a “thorough, impartial and effective investigation” into the death.

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