Poland has granted a visa 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.
An activist group that is helping athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told The Associated Press it has bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for the coming days.
The drama apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticised how officials were managing her team – setting off a massive backlash in state-run media back home, where authorities relentlessly crackdown on government critics.
The runner said on her Instagram account she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced in the event.
She was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board a flight.
Instead, she asked the police for help and later went to the Polish embassy in Tokyo.
“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 a filmed message to the International Olympic Committee.
The 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 gone to extremes to stop its critics, including the recent plane diversion to arrest a journalist that European officials have 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.
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 “failure.”
Tsimanouskaya was due to compete in the Olympic 200m heats on Monday, but she said her team has barred her from participating. She asked the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn the ban, but the body declined to intervene.
Tsimanouskaya has now been given a humanitarian visa to Poland and can seek refugee status once there.
Athletes seeking asylum at global sporting events is nothing new – though Tsimanouskaya’s circumstances differ from the typical situation.
Several groups and countries say they are helping the runner.
A spokeswoman for the Belarus Olympic team did not respond to a request for comment.
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 International Olympic Committee, 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.