Belarusian Olympic sprinter who sought protection in Japan granted Polish visa
MOSCOW - A Belarusian sprinter who refused to fly back to her country out of fear for her safety after she criticized Belarusian Olympic officials will fly to Poland this week to seek asylum there.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said on Twitter that Poland has given the athlete a humanitarian visa.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya "is already in direct contact with Polish diplomats in Tokyo," Przydacz said. "Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career."
Tsimanouskaya, 24, will fly directly to Warsaw on Wednesday, said Alexander Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the Belarusian government.
Tsimanouskaya was seen entering Poland's embassy in Tokyo on Monday, according to multiple media reports. Late Sunday, Tsimanouskaya asked Japanese police for protection at Haneda Airport in Tokyo and issued a plea to the International Olympic Committee. She said she was forced to pack her things and was escorted to the airport against her wishes by Belarusian Olympic officials.
"I have been pressured and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent, so I am asking the IOC to intervene," she said in a video that circulated on social media on Sunday.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee said in a statement that coaches decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors' advice about her "emotional and psychological state."
But in an Instagram story, Tsimanouskaya said that was a lie. The 24-year-old was scheduled to run the women's 200-meter race on Monday. But she said she was removed from the team because "I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches," according to Reuters.
In a video posted on Instagram, she criticized Belarusian Olympic officials for allegedly deciding once she was already in Tokyo that she must run the 4x400-meter relay - for which she had not trained - after other members of the team were found ineligible because they had not completed the proper doping testing.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said IOC officials met with Tsimanouskaya on Sunday night to ensure her safety.
"She has assured us that she feels safe and secure," Adams said in a news briefing Monday. "The IOC and Tokyo 2020 will continue to have conversations with her and the Japanese authorities to determine the next steps in the upcoming days."
Tsimanouskaya stayed at an airport hotel on Sunday night, and officials spoke with her again Monday morning, Adams said. IOC officials have asked the Belarusian National Olympic Committee for a full written report and will discuss next steps.
Tsimanouskaya went to the Japanese police station on Sunday night and requested protection when she arrived at Haneda Airport, Adams said. Officials representing the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and Japanese law enforcement agencies are involved with the situation, he said. The athlete was under the supervision of "authorities," Adams said, but he declined to specify which agency or country. Any criminal matters for potential investigation would be up to the police, he said.
Adams did not have any details about how she ended up at the airport.
"She told us yesterday, very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that she feels safe and secure," Adams said.
Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, praised the "quick action of Japanese and Polish authorities," writing on Twitter Monday that this enabled the sprinter to "evade the attempts of the [Lukashenko] regime to discredit and humiliate" her for expressing her views.
On Monday, however, the athlete was dealt a blow when the Court of Arbitration for Sport - a Switzerland-based institution that helps settle sports-related disputes - dismissed her request to overturn the Belarusian National Olympic Committee's decision to block her from participating Monday in the women's 200-meter qualifying event.
The Belarusian National Olympic Committee said in a Monday statement reported by the Wall Street Journal that it was "closely monitoring the situation" and was "ready to further defend and protect the interests of all Belarusian athletes from any forms of discrimination, if any."
Although Tsimanouskaya did not directly criticize Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian National Olympic Committee is run by Lukashenko's eldest son, Viktor Lukashenko. The IOC has refused to recognize Viktor Lukashenko's election to the post. In the past year, facing the greatest opposition challenge to his 27-year reign, Alexander Lukashenko has brutally cracked down on any dissent, prompting many citizens to leave the country and seek refuge from its Baltic neighbors.
In a brazen display in May, Lukashenko sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to force a civilian plane to land as it was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. Belarusian authorities then arrested one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet.
Tsimanouskaya told Belarusian sports news outlet Tribuna in an interview Sunday night: "I am afraid that in Belarus they might put me in jail. I am not afraid that I will be fired or kicked out of the national command. I am worried about my safety. And I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus."
Tadeusz Giczan, editor in chief of the Belarusian opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, said on Twitter that Tsimanouskaya's husband has fled Belarus and is now in Ukraine. Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said on Twitter Monday that the government was threatening Tsimanouskaya's parents to put pressure on the athlete.