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‘We’re just normal sports people’: Belarusian sprinter gets Polish visa – as husband in Ukraine

Written by on 02/08/2021

Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has received a humanitarian visa by Poland after refusing to board a Minsk-bound flight from Tokyo.

The 24-year-old was seen entering the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday morning after spending the night at an airport hotel where she applied for a visa.

Sky News spoke to Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, who left Belarus last night for Ukraine.

Mr Zdanevich, who is now in Kiev, said: “I didn’t think it would get this serious. I made the decision to leave without thinking twice.”

He spoke to his wife this morning and said she was calm and told him that everything was fine and she was in a safe place.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus reacts after competing in Heat 6 of the women's 100m at the Tokyo Olympics
Image: The Olympian says she was seized by officials from her own country

He said he doesn’t have any further plans yet but is sure he will join his wife wherever she ends up.

“We never had any connections, never supported the opposition. We’re just normal sports people, we’re just devoted to sports and we’re not interested in the opposition movement,” Mr Zdanevich, who is also an athlete, added.

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Tsimanouskaya said she was seized by officials from her own country on Sunday after she publicly complained about the national coaches and sought police protection.

Olympic officials later said she was “safe and secure”.

The US Ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, tweeted: “Thanks to the quick action of Japanese and Polish authorities, Tsimanouskaya is able to evade the attempts of the Lukashenka regime to discredit and humiliate this #Tokyo2020 athlete for expressing her views. #StandWithBelarus.”

Tsimanouskaya’s arrival at the Polish embassy came after France‘s European affairs minister said it would be an “honour” if Europe were to grant Tsimanouskaya political asylum.

Poland, where many critics of Alexander Lukashenko‘s regime now live, offered help to Tsimanouskaya, with deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz tweeting that Tsimanouskaya “has received a humanitarian visa”.

He added: “Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career.”

The Belarusian Embassy in Tokyo has made an official request to the Japanese authorities for information about the athlete, the RIA news agency reported.

The Olympian said she was seized by officials from her own country on Sunday after she publicly complained about the national coaches.

She spent the night in an airport hotel after seeking the protection of Japanese police at Haneda airport.

Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says she has been taken to Tokyo Airport against her will
Image: Tsimanouskaya says she was taken to Tokyo Airport against her will

Tsimanouskaya said in a filmed message distributed on social media that she was pressured by Belarus team officials, so had asked the International Olympic Committee for help.

She said: “I was put under pressure and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent.”

Tsimanouskaya had been due to compete in the women’s 200 metres and the 4×400 metres relay at the Tokyo Olympics this week.

But she criticised team officials on her Instagram account, saying she was put in the relay despite never having raced in the event before.

She had also claimed some members of her team were judged ineligible to compete because they had not undergone enough doping tests.

Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
Image: Tsimanouskaya posted a message on social media saying she’d asked IOC officials for help

Coaching staff went to Tsimanouskaya’s room and told her to pack as a response to what she had said, she claimed.

When she arrived at the airport, she summoned Japanese police and refused to board the flight to Minsk via Istanbul.

An activist group supporting Tsimanouskaya said she believed her life was in danger in Belarus and she would seek asylum with the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo.

A spokesman for the Japanese government, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters that Japan was cooperating with other organisations “to take appropriate measures” and confirmed the sprinter was safe.

The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) said Tsimanouskaya contacted them for help over fears she would be deported to Minsk after government supporters targeted her.

“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” BSSF spokesman Alexander Opeikin said.

Analysis by Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, said he didn’t think twice before packing his bags and fleeing Belarus after he heard his wife had refused to board a plane home.

Even an association with an athlete turned de facto dissident is a risk in Belarus these days, even for the avowedly non-political which both Tsimanouskaya and her husband are. Belarusians have been thrown in jail for far less than taking to Instagram to criticise the “negligence” of the national coaching team at an event President Lukashenko is watching closely. He’d appointed his son head of the Belarusian national Olympic committee, after all.

There are currently 605 political prisoners in Belarus languishing in detention, most of them awaiting trial on fabricated charges. Tsimanouskaya’s life may not have been in jeopardy were she to return but her liberty might well have been. That was clearly not a risk worth taking.

According to a leaked transcript of their conversation, Belarusian sporting official Artur Shumak told Tsimanouskaya as he was trying to persuade her to go home quietly, “you know how a fly just gets itself more entangled, the more it struggles after it lands in a web? That’s how life works”.

Life may not work that way for everyone but it certainly does in Belarus. Tsimanouskaya now has international protection. That’s something both Shumak and her coach may wish they had too as they prepare to face the consequences of this international scandal on their return home.

BSSF said it had bought a plane ticket to Warsaw for 4 August and that the sprinter was applying for a visa in the Polish embassy.

In a statement released by the BSSF, Tsimanouskaya said she was in a police station early on Monday.

She said: “I explained the situation to a police officer of how I was taken from the Olympic Village.

“Now I am in a secure situation and am figuring out the question of where I will spend the night.”

The IOC has been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee, which is headed by the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko and his son Viktor.

Both of them were banned from the Tokyo Games after the IOC received complaints from athletes about intimidation and reprisals following the protests that began last August after the country’s disputed presidential election.

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Germany on Monday urged Belarus to respect the basic rights and freedoms of its citizens amid the situation with Tsimanouskaya.

“We call on the authorities in Belarus to respect basic democratic rights, including freedom of the media, freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told a regular government news conference.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the Belarus Olympic Committee said Tsimanouskaya was removed from the Games because of her “emotional and psychological state”.

It said: “According to doctors, due to the emotional and psychological state of the Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, the coaching staff of the national athletics team decided to stop the performance of the athlete at the XXXII Olympics.

“Consequently, the athlete’s application for participation in qualifying races at 200m and in the 4x400m relay was recalled.”

 Sky News

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