Olympic sprinter from Belarus seeks refuge in Japan, fearing jail at home

Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda International airport in Tokyo, on Aug 1, 2021.
Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya is escorted by police officers at Haneda International airport in Tokyo, on Aug 1, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - A Belarusian sprinter said on Sunday (Aug 1) that she is under the protection of the Japanese police after her country's olympic committee tried and failed to deport her forcibly following her criticism of her coaches for registering her for the wrong event.

The sprinter, Ms Kristina Timanovskaya, announced on Sunday evening on Instagram that she had sought protection in Japan because she feared for her safety in Belarus, where the country's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, in power for 27 years, has sought to stifle any dissent.

"I am afraid that in Belarus, they might put me in jail," Ms Timanovskaya told the independent Belarussian news portal Zerkalo.io

"I am not afraid that I will be fired or kicked out of the national team, I am worried about my safety. And I think that at the moment, it is not safe for me in Belarus," she said.

The Belarussian National Olympic Committee, which is run by Mr Lukashenko's eldest son, Mr Victor Lukashenko, said on Sunday that it had withdrawn Ms Timanovskaya from the Games because of her "emotional and psychological state" after consulting a doctor.

Ms Timanovskaya denied being examined by any doctors and said she is in good physical and psychological health. She said she had been forcibly removed from her country's team because "I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches".

In a video taken at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, she asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for support.

In a statement, the IOC said it had been in touch with Ms Timanovskaya directly. She was at the Haneda Airport, the IOC said, and was accompanied by a member of Tokyo 2020.

"She has told us that she feels safe," the statement said.

Japan’s top government spokesman said on Monday that Ms Timanovskaya is safe.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato also told a news conference that authorities, including the IOC, are working to confirm her intentions, and that Japan would take “appropriate steps” in cooperation with other bodies.

Ms Timanovskaya, 24, was to participate in the Olympic Games in the 200m sprint. But she said she was informed that she would be running the 4x400m relay race because some team members had not taken enough anti-doping tests to qualify for the event.

"I'm outraged!" she told Zerkalo.io from the airport.

"After all, we came to the Olympic Games, and it is against all the rules to declare us for a distance event which we have never competed for in our life."

She said that her coaches and a representative of the national team had come to her room on Sunday and told her to pack her things.

She said she was told that if she did not return, she would lose her position in the national team, be deprived of work and face "possibly other consequences".