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'Would have faced punishment': Belarus sprinter on not boarding return flight as IOC launches probe

Tsimanouskaya, 24, had criticized how officials were managing her team. She said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event.

Published: 03rd August 2021 02:56 PM  |   Last Updated: 03rd August 2021 02:56 PM   |  A+A-

In this photo taken from video, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya speaks during a video interview. (Photo | AP)

By Associated Press

MOSCOW: Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has told The Associated Press in a video interview that officials from her country “made it clear” that she would be kicked out of the national team and face punishment upon return to Belarus.

Tsimanouskaya, 24, had criticized how officials were managing her team. She said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event, after which Belarusian sports officials announced that she was returning home.

The runner was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board the flight.

“They made it clear that upon return home I would definitely face some form of punishment, and that if I were to refuse to return home and would run in the 200m race, I would be fired and kicked out of the national team,” Tsimanouskaya told the AP. “There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”

Poland granted Tsimanouskaya a visa Monday, and she will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday.

She has told The Associated Press she hopes to continue her career, but for now her safety remains a priority.

“For now I just want to safely arrive in Europe ... meet with people who have been helping me and make a decision what to do next,” Tsimanouskaya said.

“I would very much like to continue my sporting career because I’m just 24 and I had plans for two more Olympics at least,” she said. ”(But) for now, the only thing that concerns me is my safety.”

Poland granted Tsimanouskaya a visa Monday, and she will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday after her team’s officials tried to force her to fly home, where the autocratic government has been cracking down on dissent.

The current standoff apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticized 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.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday accused Belarus of an "act of transnational repression" over the alleged attempt to force her home.

Tsimanouskaya spent the night in Poland's embassy in Tokyo after arriving there on Monday evening. Warsaw has denounced what it calls a "criminal attempt" to kidnap the athlete.

"We have made sure that Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is safe in the Polish embassy in Tokyo and we will, if necessary, offer her the possibility of continuing her career," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook. 

The athlete was expected to stay at the embassy in Tokyo until leaving for Warsaw, possibly as soon as Wednesday, Poland-based dissident Pavel Latushka wrote on Twitter.

Tsimanouskaya's husband Arseny Zdanevich told AFP he had fled Belarus and was hoping to join his wife "in the near future".

"I believe it would not be safe for me to be there," the 25-year-old fitness trainer said by phone from Ukraine. 

Tsimanouskaya, a 200 metres specialist, criticised the Belarusian athletics federation after they tried to force her to run in a relay. She said that outburst had led to the attempt to forcibly send her home.

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on any form of dissent since mass protests erupted after elections last year that were deemed unfair by the West.

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.

Poland is a staunch critic of Lukashenko's regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.

- 'Affront to basic rights' -

Activist group Global Athlete called overnight for the IOC to immediately suspend Belarus's Olympic committee and allow the country's athletes to compete as neutral athletes.

The NGO said Tsimanouskaya's "alleged kidnapping... is yet another example of the alarming athlete abuse occurring in Belarus."

It also accused the IOC of failing to protect athletes and sending the message that their safety was "secondary to the implementation of the Games".

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said the body was launching a formal investigation and also expected to receive a report from Belarus's Olympic committee today.

"We're going to need to establish facts," he told reporters in Tokyo, adding that the IOC would "need to hear everyone involved."

Asked about the safety of the team's remaining athletes at the Games, Adams said IOC and Tokyo 2020 staff were based at the Olympic Village and could be approached if necessary.

Japan's government has declined to comment on the specifics of Tsimamouskaya's case, with the foreign minister saying Tuesday that she was in a safe place and requesting asylum in a third country.

The US secretary of state meanwhile accused Lukashenko's regime of trying "to commit another act of transnational repression: attempting to force Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to leave simply for exercising free speech."

"Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated," he added in a tweet.

The saga came as police in Ukraine said a missing Belarusian activist had been found hanged in a park in Kiev and that they had opened a murder probe. 

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 in order to arrest a dissident onboard.

On Tuesday, a Belarusian activist whose NGO helps his compatriots flee the country was found hanged in a park in Kiev after being reported missing.

Police said they had opened a murder probe and would pursue all leads including a possible "murder disguised as a suicide," as activists said the man had been the victim of a "planned operation" by the Belarus regime.

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

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."

(With AFP Inputs)

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