Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has taken refuge in Poland after refusing to return to her authoritarian homeland from the Tokyo Olympics in a saga reminiscent of Cold War sporting defections.
The 24-year-old athlete’s case could further isolate Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since last year.
Tsimanouskaya caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches angry at her criticism had ordered her to pack and go to the airport. She refused to board a flight home and sought protection from Japanese police.
Poland, which has long been critical of Mr Lukashenko and harboured many activists from Belarus, has granted her and her husband humanitarian visas.
“She needs to rest. She is tired but happy to be in Poland. She will stay in Poland in a safe place,” Polish deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz told Reuters.
Some Belarusians waited at Warsaw airport, holding signs of resistance – carnations and flags in red-and-white on Wednesday (local time).
The sprinter, who had criticised negligence by her team coaches, spent two nights in Poland’s embassy in Japan before flying to Poland via the Austrian capital Vienna.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee had said coaches withdrew Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors’ advice about her emotional and psychological state. It had no further comment on Wednesday, nor did the government.
The affair has played out amid increased concern for the safety of Mr Lukashenko’s critics, including in neighbouring countries, following a crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of arrests inside Belarus.
Sport plays a high-profile role in Belarusian politics under Mr Lukashenko, a hockey player and cross-country skier known to compete in televised races in which his opponents fall before crossing the finish line.
Mr Lukashenko personally headed the Belarus Olympic committee until he was replaced by his son earlier in 2021. His website quotes him as saying: “Sport is our ideology”.
The International Olympic Committee has started an investigation into Tsimanouskaya’s case and said it would hear from the two Belarusian officials allegedly involved.
After the sprinter had a stopover in Vienna, Austria’s deputy environment minister Magnus Brunner, said she was safe and doing well.