Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks to police officers at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, Japan. August 1, 2021.
Issei Kato | Reuters
A Belarusian sprinter refused to board a flight from Tokyo on Sunday after being taken to the airport against her will by her team over complaints about national team coaches at the Olympics.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, was still at Haneda Airport in Tokyo early in the morning on Monday.
The International Olympic Committee said it had spoken with Tsimanouskaya and she was accompanied by a Tokyo 2020 employee at the airport.
“She has told us she feels safe,” the IOC said in a tweet.
It added that the IOC and Tokyo 2020 would continue their talks with Tsimanouskaya and the authorities “to determine the next steps in the coming days”.
The case exposed dissension in Belarus, a former Soviet state governed by President Alexander Lukashenko. In power since 1994, he faced a wave of protests last year, joined by some athletes.
Tsimanouskaya said the coaching staff came to her room on Sunday and told her to pack. She said she was taken to Haneda airport by representatives of the Belarusian Olympic team.
But she refused to board the plane and sought protection from the Japanese police. She told Reuters in a message via Telegram: “I will not return to Belarus.”
The Belarus Olympic Committee said in a statement that coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctor’s advice about her “emotional, psychological state.”
The committee did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
Earlier, a Reuters photographer saw the athlete standing next to the police at the airport. “I think I’m safe,” Tsimanouskaya said. “I’m with the police.”
In a video previously published on Telegram by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, Tsimanouskaya had asked the IOC to get involved in her case.
A source at the foundation, which supports athletes imprisoned or sidelined for their political views, said Tsimanouskaya planned to apply for asylum in Germany or Austria on Monday.
The head of the foundation, former Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, told Reuters that Tsimanouskaya could also get help from Poland.
“We have asked a number of countries for help,” said Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medalist. “But the first to respond was the Polish consulate. We are ready to accept their help.”
Lukashenko’s son, Viktor Lukashenko, is chairman of the Belarusian Olympic Committee.
‘Negligence’ of coaches
Tsimanouskaya ran the women’s 100m on Friday and was scheduled to run the 200m on Monday, along with the 4x400m relay on Thursday.
She said she was removed from the team “because of the fact that I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches.”
Tsimanouskaya had complained on Instagram that she was entered in the 4x400m relay after some members of the team became ineligible to participate in the Olympics because they had not undergone adequate 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 up to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me.”
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the IOC to consider the athlete’s case.
“She has the right to international protection and to continue to participate in the @Olympics,” Tsikhanouskaya tweeted. “It is also crucial to investigate the violations of athletes’ rights by the NOC of Belarus.”
President Lukashenko last year faced massive street protests over what his opponents called rigged elections, and ordered a violent crackdown on protesters. The president denies allegations of electoral fraud.
In a country where elite athletes often rely on government funding, some prominent Belarusian athletes joined the protests. Several were jailed, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and decathlete Andrei Krauchanka.
Others lost their jobs with the state or were kicked out of the national teams for supporting the opposition.
During the Cold War, dozens of athletes and cultural figures defected from the Soviet Union and its satellite states during overseas competitions or tours. But the freedom of travel that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 diminished the need for such dramatic acts.