Belarus sprinter safe under Tokyo police protection after refusing to go home
The Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who alleges she was taken against her will by team officials to Tokyo airport, is being protected by police and the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, are also involved, the IOC confirmed on Monday.
Tsimanouskaya, who was due to compete in the women’s 200m on Monday, sought the protection of Japanese police at Haneda airport on Sunday so that she would not have to board a flight back to Belarus after criticising team officials.
The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation said Tsimanouskaya was planning to seek asylum in Germany or Austria. However, a Sky News report later indicated that she had arrived at the Polish embassy in Tokyo after Poland and the Czech Republic both offered her asylum.
On Monday the International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams said that the IOC and Tokyo 2020 had spoken to Tsimanouskaya directly and she had spent the night at an airport hotel.
“We were in touch with her last night and this morning and she feels safe and secure,” he said. “Our first duty of care is to her, and that is what we are carrying out. Overnight she went to the police station with someone from Tokyo 2020. And I understand that the UNHCR is involved and the police are still engaged with this issue.”
When asked about claims about a “kidnap”, Adams said: “She talked to the police at the airport. If there is a criminal matter, it needs to be looked into but is a matter for the police.”
“We are 12 hours after the event so we need to get more details. We have asked the Belarus NOC for a full report but we have taken action against them in the past year.”
Speaking to Reuters over Telegram on Sunday, the 24-year-old athlete said she had been removed from the team due “to the fact that I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches”.
She also asked the IOC to step in, saying she was in danger of being bundled out of Japan. “I’m asking the IOC for help,” she said in a video posted on the Telegram channel of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, a group that supports athletes jailed or sidelined for their political views.
“There is pressure against me,” added Tsimanouskaya. “They’re trying to get me out of the country without my permission.”
The sprinter had said that coaching staff came to her room on Sunday and told her to pack. She was then allegedly taken to the airport before she could run in the 200m and the 4x400m relay on Thursday.
She previously complained that she was entered in the 4x400m relay after some members of the team were found to be ineligible to compete at the Olympics because they had not undergone the requisite number of doping tests.
“Some of our girls didn’t fly here to compete in the 4x400m relay because they didn’t have enough doping tests,” Tsimanouskaya told Reuters from the airport.
“And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge. I spoke about this publicly. The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me.”
Tsimanouskaya added that she was standing next to Japanese police at the airport and had contacted a member of the Belarusian diaspora in Japan to pick her up from the airport.
In a statement, the Belarusian Olympic Committee said coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice regarding her “emotional, psychological state”. It did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has kept a tight grip on the former Soviet state since 1994. Faced with mass street protests last year over what his opponents called rigged elections, he ordered a violent crackdown on protesters. Lukashenko denies the rigging allegations.
Unusually in a country where elite athletes often rely on government funding, some prominent Belarusian athletes joined the protests. Several were jailed, including the Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and the decathlete Andrei Krauchanka. Others lost their state employment or were removed from national teams for supporting the opposition.
During the cold war, scores of sports people and cultural figures defected from the Soviet Union and its satellite states during overseas competitions or tours. But the freedom of travel that came with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union saw the need for such dramatic acts dwindle.