A Belarusian Olympic sprinter who said a feud with team officials made her feel she could not safely return home arrived in Austria on Wednesday, part of a journey that could see her settle in Europe to avoid reprisals from her authoritarian government.
After a stopover in Vienna, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is expected to travel to Poland, which granted her a humanitarian visa. In a dramatic standoff at the Tokyo Games, the runner said team officials tried to force her to fly home early after she criticized them. Some European countries stepped in to offer assistance.
It’s not clear what’s next for the 24-year-old — either in her sporting life or her personal one. Before she left Japan, she said she hoped to continue her running career, but that safety was her immediate priority. Her husband fled Belarus shortly after his wife said she would not be returning. Poland has also offered him a visa.
“We are very happy that she is here safe,” said Magnus Brunner, a top Austrian government official, after Tsimanouskaya’s plane arrived on Wednesday afternoon from Tokyo. “But she is scared about her future and about her family.”
At the airport, the runner was protected by Austrian police officers, public broadcaster ORF reported. Brunner said she has not asked for asylum in Austria.
She was expected to head to Warsaw later Wednesday, according to an activist with a group that has been supporting her.
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Tsimanouskaya flew first to Austria instead of directly to Poland on the advice of Polish authorities, for security reasons, said Vadim Krivosheyev, of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation.
Runner critical of how officials managed her team
The drama began after Tsimanouskaya’s criticism of how officials were managing her team set off a massive backlash in state-run media in Belarus, where the government has relentlessly stifled any criticism. The runner said on Instagram that she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200 metre race.
Tsimanouskaya accused team officials of hustling her to the airport — but she refused to board a plane home.
Officials “made it clear that, upon return home, I would definitely face some form of punishment,” Tsimanouskaya told The Associated Press in a video call from Tokyo on Tuesday. “There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”
The sprinter called on international sports authorities “to investigate the situation, who gave the order, who actually took the decision that I can’t compete anymore.” She suggested possible sanctions against the head coach.
Reached by phone, Dzmitry Dauhalionak, the head of Belarus’s delegation at the Tokyo Olympics, declined to comment.
Spotlight on authoritarian regime
The standoff has drawn more attention to Belarus’s authoritarian government. When the country was rocked by months of protests following a presidential election that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, authorities responded by arresting some 35,000 people and beating thousands of demonstrators.
President Alexander Lukashenko — who led the Belarus National Olympic Committee for almost a quarter-century before handing over the job to his son in February — has a keen interest in sports, seeing them as a key element of national prestige.
And his government has shown it is willing to go to extreme lengths to target its critics. In May, Belarus authorities diverted a passenger jet to the capital of Minsk, where they arrested an opposition journalist on board.
In the AP interview, Tsimanouskaya expressed concern for her parents, who remain in Belarus.
Her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, left for Ukraine shortly after the drama began. Poland has since issued him a humanitarian visa, according to government spokesman Piotr Mueller.
WATCH | Belarusian athlete says she was taken to airport against her will:
2 more Belarusian athletes staying abroad
Amid Tsimanouskaya’s rift with team officials, two other Belarusian athletes announced their intention to stay abroad.
Heptathlete Yana Maksimava said she and her husband, Andrei Krauchanka, who won silver in the decathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, would remain in Germany.
“I’m not planning to return home after all the events that happened in Belarus,” Maksimava said on Instagram, adding that “you can lose not just your freedom but also your life” in her homeland.
Western leaders have condemned Tsimanouskaya’s treatment by Belarusian authorities.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced Belarusian officials’ attempt to force Tsimanouskaya to return to Belarus for exercising free speech as “another act of transnational repression.”
“Such actions violate the Olympic spirit, are an affront to basic rights, and cannot be tolerated,” Blinken said on Twitter.
While Tsimanouskaya said she hoped to continue her sporting career, she could face lengthy procedures if she wants to compete under a different flag.
Tomasz Majewski, the vice-president of the Polish Athletics Association and a former Olympic gold medallist, voiced fear that Tsimanouskaya “will lose the best period of her career” if she changes citizenship.
“These are complicated matters,” he said. “We know that there will be clear objections from the home team, which will probably make it difficult or even seek the disqualification of the athlete.”