Tue | Oct 19, 2021

Poland grants visa to Belarus Olympian who fears for safety

Published:Monday | August 2, 2021 | 12:31 PM
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus runs in the women's 100-metre at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021. Tsimanouskaya alleged her Olympic team tried to remove her from Japan in a dispute that led to a standoff Sunday, August 1, at Tokyo’s main airport. An activist group supporting Tsimanouskaya said she believed her life was in danger in Belarus and would seek asylum with the Austrian embassy in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

TOKYO (AP) — Poland granted a visa Monday to a Belarusian Olympic sprinter who said she feared for her safety and that her team's officials tried to force her to fly home, where the autocratic government was accused of diverting a flight to arrest a dissident journalist.

An activist group that is helping athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told The Associated Press that it bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for the coming days.

The current standoff apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticised how officials were managing her team — setting off a massive backlash in state-run media back home, where authorities relentlessly crack down on government critics.

The runner said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event.

The runner was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board a flight for Istanbul and instead approached police for help.

In a filmed message distributed 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,” the 24-year-old said in the message.

The rapid-fire series of events brought international political intrigue to an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to holding the event at all.

Belarus' authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone even mildly expressing dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests.

And it has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including the recent plane diversion that European officials called an act of air piracy.

In this context, Tsimanouskaya feared for her safety once she saw the campaign against her in state media, according to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, the activist group that is helping her.

“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation, told the AP in an interview.

State media have continued to come down hard on Tsimanouskaya.

Presenters on state TV channel Belarus 1 called her decision to seek asylum “a cheap stunt” and “a disgusting act,” and described her performance at the Olympics as a “failure.”

Tsimanouskaya competed for Belarus on the first day of track events Friday at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.

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 that decision, but the body declined to intervene.

Tsimanouskaya's next steps were not clear. 

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