Belarusian Olympic sprinter Kristina Tsimanoushskaya said on Tuesday she is focusing on her safety and seeking refuge in Europe after facing threats from authorities at home.
“They made it clear that I would definitely face some sort of punishment when I returned home,” she told the Associated Press in a videocall interview. “There were also little hidden hints that more would await me.”
The 24-year-old said she wants to continue her career as an athlete, and plans to compete in at least two Olympics in the future.
“For now, I just want to get to Europe safely … meet the people who are helping me and decide what to do next,” said Simonovskaya.
Polish authorities granted her a humanitarian visa to seek political asylum on Monday after she alleged that officials on her team were trying to force her to go home to Belarus against her will.
Poland grants humanitarian visa to Belarusian Olympian
Kristina Tsimanoushskaya tells officials she doesn’t feel safe under autocratic Lukashenko government after criticizing Belarusian team’s management
Tsimanovskaya told officials in Tokyo she feared she would not be safe from President Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic government in Belarus.
An activist group said it had bought Simanovskaya a plane ticket for Wednesday’s flight to Warsaw.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted late Monday that the Lukashenko government was trying to “commit another act of traditional repression” by forcing Simonskaya to leave “only to give free speech”.
The Lukashenka regime sought to commit another act of international repression: an attempt to force Olympian Kristina Tsimanovskaya to leave only to give free speech. Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, violate basic rights and cannot be tolerated.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) 3 August 2021
“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, violate basic rights and cannot be tolerated,” Blinken wrote.
Political drama ensued when Simanovskaya criticized how officials were managing the Belarusian Olympian, leading to state-run media back home, where the government often cracks down on critics.
The National Olympic Committee of Belarus has been led by Lukashenko and his son Viktor for more than 25 years.
On her Instagram account, Simanovskaya stated that she was included in the country’s 4×400 relay team, although she never raced in the event.
Belarusian officials apparently took Tsimanoushskaya to Tokyo airport, but she refused to fly to Istanbul and instead approached the police for help.
“I was put under pressure, and they are trying to force me out of the country without my consent,” the 24-year-old runner said in a video message posted on social media.
Later, on Monday afternoon local time, she was taken to the Polish embassy in an unmarked silver van and left with the belongings of her official team. Two women with red and white flags, considered symbols of protest in Belarus, came to the gate to support him.
Simanovskaya told a Reuters reporter via Telegram that the Belarusian head coach came to her room in the athletes’ village on Sunday and told her she had to return home.
“The head coach came to me and said that from above I was ordered to be removed,” she wrote in the message. “5 o’clock [p.m.] They came to my room and asked me to pack, and they took me to the airport.”
But Tsimanoushskaya refused to board and sought the protection of the Japanese police at the airport.
Belarus was widely condemned by Western governments in May when a passenger jet carrying an opposition activist and his girlfriend flew over the country and forced it to land. Judging by reports in the Belarusian media about Simanovskaya’s complaints about the country’s team management, she said she feared for her own safety if she returned home.
“The campaign was quite serious and it was a clear indication that his life in Belarus would be in danger,” Alexander Opeikin, spokesman for the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, told the Associated Press.
Over the years, athletes from authoritarian countries have often sought political asylum in other countries while they were competing in the quadrennial Summer Olympics or other global sporting events. This happened frequently during the Cold War, but also at the Olympic Games since then.
Some information in this report has been received from the Associated Press and Reuters.