08/02 11:11 CDT Poland grants visa to Belarus Olympian who fears for safety
Poland grants visa to Belarus Olympian who fears for safety
By GRAHAM DUNBAR
TOKYO (AP) --- Poland granted a visa Monday to a Belarusian Olympic sprinter
who said she feared for her safety and that her team's officials tried to force
her to fly home, where the autocratic government was accused of diverting a
flight to arrest a dissident journalist.
An activist group that is helping athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told The
Associated Press that it bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for the coming
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. In a filmed message
distributed on social media, she also asked the International Olympic Committee
"I was put under pressure, and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the
country without my consent," the 24-year-old said in the message.
The rapid-fire series of events brought international political intrigue to an
Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining
safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to
holding the event at all.
Belarus' authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone even mildly
expressing dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of
unprecedented mass protests. And it has also gone to extremes to stop its
critics, including the recent plane diversion that European officials called an
act of air piracy.
In this context, Tsimanouskaya feared for her safety once she saw the campaign
against her in state media, according to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity
Foundation, the activist group that is helping her.
"The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would
be in danger in Belarus," Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation,
told the AP in an interview.
State media have continued to come down hard on Tsimanouskaya. Presenters on
state TV channel Belarus 1 called her decision to seek asylum "a cheap stunt"
and "a disgusting act," and described her performance at the Olympics as a
Tsimanouskaya competed for Belarus on the first day of track events Friday at
the National Stadium in Tokyo. She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the
100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.
She was due to compete again in the Olympic 200-meter heats on Monday, but she
said her team barred her from participating in a complaint filed with the Court
of Arbitration for Sport. She asked the court to overturn that decision, but
the body declined to intervene.
Tsimanouskaya's next steps were not clear. Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek, a Polish
deputy foreign minister, said the runner asked for the humanitarian visa for
now and can still seek refugee status once in Poland. Vadim Krivosheyev, of the
activist sports foundation, said she planned to seek asylum.
Tsimanouskaya's husband, Arseni Zdanevich, meanwhile, confirmed to the Russian
Sport Express newspaper that he left Belarus for Ukraine. Other media reported
the couple's child was with him.
Athletes seeking asylum at global sporting events is nothing new --- though
Tsimanouskaya's circumstances differ from the typical situation. Requests for
asylum were especially frequent during the Cold War but they have also happened
occasionally in the decades since. As many as 117 athletes defected at the
Munich Olympics in 1972, according to reports at the time. At least four
Romanians and a Soviet associated with the Olympics defected at the Montreal
Games in 1976. And Cuban athletes have frequently done so.
Underscoring the seriousness of the allegations, several groups and countries
say they are helping the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic offered
assistance, and Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was working with the
International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympics organizers.
The IOC, which has been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee
ahead of the Tokyo Games, said it had intervened.
"The IOC ... is looking into the situation and has asked the NOC for
clarification," it said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Belarus Olympic team did not respond to a request for
Many critics of Belarus' government have fled to Poland. A top Belarusian
dissident in the country, Pavel Latushka, said Tsimanouskaya and those
supporting her had sought assistance from various European governments, but
Poland was the quickest to respond.
Marcin Przydacz, one of the country's deputy foreign ministers, said on Twitter
that in addition to granting the humanitarian visa, Poland would also help the
runner to continue her sports career. "Poland always stands for Solidarity," he
Several hours after she entered the Polish embassy, Tsimanouskaya was still
believed to be inside.
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek also tweeted that the Czech Republic has
offered her asylum.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by
authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Viktor.
Both Lukashenkos are banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which
investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and
intimidation during the crackdown following the wave of anti-government
protests over the last year.
"Lukashenko perceives all criticism as part of a plot by Western countries,"
said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian political analyst.
"Tsimanouskaya's protest is viewed as part of a broader movement of hundreds of
Belarusian athletes who stood against the beatings of peaceful demonstrators
and for a year have been taking part in street rallies."
The standoff over Tsimanouskaya comes just months after the dramatic diversion
of a passenger plane flying between two EU countries. Belarusian authorities
ordered the plane to land in Minsk --- and pulled journalist and activist Raman
Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend off the flight.
The elder Lukashenko maintained that there was a bomb threat against the plane
and that's why a fighter jet was scrambled to force it to land, but the move
was roundly criticized by Western leaders.
Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize
demonstrations against Lukashenko's rule, left his homeland in 2019. He has
been charged with fomenting mass unrest and is under house arrest while he
Associated Press journalists Daria Litvinova and Daniel Kozin in Moscow, Yuras
Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and James Ellingworth in Tokyo contributed to this
More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and