Belarusian Olympic runner: Grandmother told me not to return

·2-min read
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya  (REUTERS)
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (REUTERS)

A Belarusian Olympic sprinter has revealed how her grandmother told her not to come home after she criticised her coaches at the Tokyo Games.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, posted a message on social media that criticised the way her team was being managed.

She was told by team officials to pack her bags and to say she was injured and had to go home early.

On her way to the airport, she spoke briefly to her grandmother, who explained that there was a massive backlash against her in the media back in Belarus, including reports that she was mentally ill.

Her grandmother advised her not to return. At the airport, she sought help from police, translating a plea on her phone and showing it to them.

As the drama unfolded, European countries offered to help her, and the runner ended up at the Polish embassy, where she received a humanitarian visa.

Many of Belarus’ activists have fled to Poland to avoid a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

Ms Tsimanouskaya thanked the people who supported her during the standoff, speaking in both English and Russian at a news conference in Warsaw.

“It was the whole world, and these people make me much stronger,” she said.

The athlete also had a message for her fellow Belarusians.

“I want to tell all Belarusians not to be afraid and, if they’re under pressure, speak out,” she added.

She expressed concern for the safety of her family back home. Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, fled Belarus this week shortly after his wife said she would not be returning. Poland has also granted him a visa.

The events have drawn more attention to Belarus’ uncompromising authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following an election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term but that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown.

Some 35,000 people were arrested and thousands of demonstrators beaten.

The government has also targeted independent media and opposition figures.

Belarus officials diverted a passenger jet to the capital of Minsk in May and arrested a dissident journalist who was on board.

But Ms Tsimaounskaya has insisted that she is no activist and only wanted to be allowed to compete in her preferred event at the Olympics.

The standoff began after she complained that she was scheduled to participate in a race she had never competed in.

On Thursday, she said she had not thought about seeking political asylum but did hope to figure out soon how she might continue her career.

She said she will speak with Polish officials on Friday about her next steps, adding that she hoped the Tokyo Games would not be her last Olympics — and that she wants to return home one day, when it is safe.

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