Olympics: Belarusian sprinter reaches Poland after defying order home

Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushka poses with sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on her arrival in Warsaw, on Aug 4, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS/TWITTER

WARSAW/TOKYO (REUTERS) - Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya landed on Wednesday (Aug 4) in Poland to take refuge after defying an order to return early to her authoritarian homeland from the Tokyo Olympics.

Reminiscent of sporting defections during the Cold War, the case could further isolate the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which is under Western sanctions after a crackdown on opponents since last year.

After two nights in Poland's embassy in Japan, the 24-year-old travelled first to the Austrian capital Vienna and then onto Warsaw, sporting sunglasses with the words "I RUN CLEAN".

"Poland continues to show its solidarity and support," Poland's deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz said on Twitter, confirming her arrival and thanking diplomats who facilitated her journey.

The sprinter caused a furore on Sunday when she said coaches had demanded she pack her bags at the Olympic village and taken her to the airport against her wishes, ordering her home because she had criticised them.

She refused to board the flight and sought protection of Japanese police.

Poland has granted her a humanitarian visa and another to her husband to join her.

At the airport in Warsaw, a few Belarusians waited to greet the athlete, carrying carnations and a flag in red-and-white in a sign of resistance.

"We are here to support our compatriot, who told the truth about what is happening in Belarusian sport," said Eugene Dudkin, a 31-year-old student, who went to Poland after being held for a night at a police station for protesting.

Belarus stays quiet

The Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Previously, it said coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Games on doctors' advice about her emotional and psychological state.

A Belarus interior ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment about Tsimanouskaya's security. Belarus government officials have said little so far publicly about her case.

The affair has played out amid increased concern for the safety of Lukashenko's critics, including in neighbouring countries, following a crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of arrests inside Belarus.

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Vitaly Shishov, a Belarusian activist living in Ukraine, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv early on Tuesday. Ukrainian police have launched a murder investigation, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ordered a review into the safety of Belarus exiles.

Sport plays a high profile role in Belarusian politics under Lukashenko, a hockey player and cross country skier known to compete in televised races in which his opponents fall before crossing the finish line. Lukashenko personally headed the Belarus Olympic committee until he was replaced by his son this year. 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.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Lukashenko's government of "transnational repression" in the matter.

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Police have cracked down on dissent in Belarus following a wave of protests triggered by an election last year which the opposition says was rigged to keep Lukashenko in power.

Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the West, and described the actions of their own law enforcement agencies as appropriate and necessary.

After the sprinter's arrival in Vienna en route to Poland, Austria's deputy environment minister Magnus Brunner, said she was safe and doing well, adding: "She is naturally worried and excited and nervous about what will happen next for her."

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