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Why this Belarus sprinter went from Olympic athlete to asylum-seeker

She refused a ‘forced’ flight home and now has a visa to Poland. What happened?

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Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya enters the Polish embassy in Tokyo, Japan.

In this image made from a video provided by NTV, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya enters the Polish embassy in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.

NTV via Associated Press

Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya arrived in Tokyo as an Olympian — she’s leaving as both an Olympian and an asylum-seeker. The situation has drawn international attention to Belarus and its autocratic government that continues to crackdown on dissent, reported The Associated Press.

  • Sunday, Tsimanouskaya refused to leave Tokyo early, saying her team’s officials were forcing her to leave after she criticized their actions, reported BBC.
  • The sprinter also said she feared for her safety if she were to return home to Belarus, reported The Guardian.

Now, Tsimanouskaya has received a humanitarian visa to Poland where she can apply for asylum or refugee status, reported BBC. Here’s what happened in another dramatic development at the Tokyo Olympics.

Who is Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya?

Tsimanouskaya, 24, is a sprinter from Belarus who competed in the women’s 100-meter event on Friday, reported the AP. On Instagram Sunday, she criticized how officials managed her team after they put her in the 4x400 — an event she had never competed in before.

  • For criticizing team officials, Tsimanouskaya received massive backlash from state-run media in Belarus, per the AP.
  • Shortly after, Tsimanouskaya says officials came to her room and gave her one hour to pack before forcibly escorting her to the airport to board a flight to Istanbul, reported BBC.

The Belarus Olympic Committee says they removed Tsimanouskaya from the team due to her “emotional and psychological condition,” per BBC.

Why is she seeking asylum?

When she arrived at the airport, Tsimanouskaya sought intervention by Japanese police forces. She also posted a video to social media calling for the International Olympic Committee to get involved, per The Guardian.

  • “I was put under pressure, and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in the video shared on social media, per the AP.
  • Tsimanouskaya said she feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus and wanted to seek asylum, per BBC.
  • The Japanese police, the International Olympic Committee, and the Polish government got involved, keeping Tsimanouskaya in Tokyo and away from her team’s officials, per BBC.

“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” reported the AP. This has included multiple elite Belarusian athletes.

  • “Athletes are favoured by the state and honoured by society,” said Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia researcher, per BBC.
  • “It is not surprising that athletes who speak out find themselves a target for reprisals,” McGill said.

Athletes seeking asylum at global sporting events is not new. As many as 117 athletes defected at the Munich Olympics in 1972, according to the AP.

What’s next for Tsimanouskaya?

Tsimanouskaya was supposed to compete for Belarus in the women’s 200-meter event on Monday, but the Belarus Olympic Committee barred her from participating, reported the AP.

  • She spent the night at an airport hotel under the protection of the Japanese police, reported BBC.
  • Both Poland and the Czech Republic have offered to help the sprinter, per The Guardian.

Poland responded quicker, offering Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa. Now, she has a flight to Warsaw in a few days where she can begin the process for asylum or refugee status, reported the AP.