A ham-fisted dispute between a Belarusian athlete and team officials over whether she should run a relay at the Tokyo track has morphed into an international incident, with the athlete in protective custody at an airport hotel and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now involved.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams today said Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarussian sprinter who defied her team’s edict to leave Tokyo and return to Minsk, was safe and “in the hands of authorities”.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya in the women’s 100-metre sprint on Friday.Credit:AP
He said that after seeking refuge from her own team officials, she had spent the night in a hotel and that the IOC, Tokyo Police, and the international human rights organisation were all working to resolve her situation.
Tsimanouskaya says she fears returning to the Belarus, which remains under the repressive rule of Soviet-era autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, and that she intends to remain in Tokyo until she can seek asylum in another European country.
Victor Lukashenko, the eldest son of the Belarus president, is the president of the Belarus National Olympic Committee, the organisation that sent two team officials to Tsimanouskaya’s room in the Olympic village on Sunday afternoon to escort her to the airport and load her on to a flight to Minsk.
“I am afraid that in Belarus they might put me in jail,” the Zerlako.io news site reported Tsimanouskaya as saying late on Sunday night. “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.”
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (second from right) said she was safe with police at the airport.Credit:Getty Images
Since August last year, when Lukashenko refused to leave office after a contested election result and authorised a violent crackdown against political opponents, protesters and dissidents, Belarus has become notoriously unsafe for anyone who publicly criticises his regime.
Dubbed Europe’s last dictator, he became an international pariah in May this year after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk so they could arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich, a prominent figure Belarus’s pro-democracy movement.
This prompted the US, the European Union, the UK, and Canada to impose sanctions preventing senior Belarus government officials from entering their borders.
“I am worried about my safety, and I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus.”
The IOC has taken a hardline stance against Lukashenko since the August election. It refused to recognise the legitimacy of his presidency, stripped the Belarus NOC of funding, and denied Belarus the right to host international sporting events.
The IOC also does not recognise Victor Lukashenko as the head of Belarus’ NOC. Victor was given the title when his father, a former officer in the Soviet army, relinquished it earlier this year. Lukashenko’s personal interest and political investment in sport means that any Belarus officials sent to Tokyo to chaperone their athletes are likely to be cronies of the regime.
The dispute between Tsimanouskaya and her team began on Saturday when she posted an Instagram message, since deleted, claiming that national team boss Yuri Moisevich ordered her to withdraw from the 200 metres, an event in which she had qualified to run, to make up the numbers in the 4x400m relay.
Lukashenko, who had run in the heats of the 100m a day earlier, reportedly described the demand as outrageous and accused the team hierarchy of incompetence.
Belarus’ response was to engage in state-sanctioned gaslighting, with a statement released by the Belarus NOC claiming it had withdrawn Tsimanouskaya from competition because of her “emotional and psychological state.″
By the time her 200m heat was run on Monday, Tsimanouskaya’s name had been removed from the start sheet, bringing her involvement in these Games to an abrupt end.
In her interview with Zerlako.io, Tsimanouskaya said this was untrue and she had been dumped from the team as retribution. She described how, on Sunday, Moisevich came to her room with another team official and told her she had two hours to pack her bags and get to the airport.
She reportedly said a team psychologist advised her on how best to accept blame for the situation when she returned to Minsk and was questioned by the Minister of Sport Sergey Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk is a career soldier who worked in the president’s personal security detail. When he was appointed to the sports post in March, Lukashenko told local media that he wanted to see greater discipline across the national sports system.
“So far, we have more problems in sports than victories and successes,” he said.
“Think, see who to work with, build a system. But the main thing is that it lacks discipline. The coaching staff works disgustingly, with the exception of some.”
In the same month that Kovalchuk was appointed, the IOC executive board expressed concern that the Belarus NOC had “not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination within their NOC, their member federations or the sports movement”.
Tsimanouskaya agreed to go to Haneda airport with the team officials, but once there, sought refuge with Tokyo Metropolitan Police. During a tense, late-night stand-off, she posted a video of herself from inside the police station.
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald contacted the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and the local office of the UNHRC for comment.
Tsimanouskaya’s cause has been taken up by Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who travelled to Washington DC last week to meet US President Joe Biden and senior US national security and state department officials.
President Biden, in a statement released on Twitter, said: “The United States stands with the people of the Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights”.
Adams said the IOC would continue to support Tsimanouskaya but noted “it is not within our remit to help her with any future plans she may have”.
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The post Belarusian athlete ‘safe’ but out of Games after late night stand-off first appeared on europesportsnews.com.