The Belarusian runner who feared being sent home after publicly criticising her coaches at the Tokyo Olympic Games said that she showed airport police a translated plea for help on her phone.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who arrived safely in Poland earlier this week, described the dramatic series of events at a press conference in Warsaw on Thursday.
Speaking in English and Russian the 24-year-old said that after she had criticized the way her track team was being managed on social media, team officials told her to say that she was injured and that she would be going home early.
Ms Tsimanouskaya criticised the coaching staff on Instagram, saying that while she was supposed to compete in the 200m sprint, she had been entered into the 4x400 metre relay event, a race she had never competed in.
On the way to the airport she told the press conference that she spoke briefly with her grandmother. She said that her grandmother told her there was a massive backlash against her in the Belarusian media, including reports that she was mentally ill; she added that her grandmother advised her not to return home.
When she was at the airport, Ms Tsimanouskaya said that she used Google Translate to translate her plea for help, before showing her phone to Japanese police officers.
At first, she said that the officers did not understand, and a Belarusian official inquired as to what was going on. Ms Tsimanouskaya said that she told the official she had forgot something at the Olympic Village and needed to return.
Eventually, she said, the Japanese police took her away from the Belarusian officials.
After a spending a night at an airport hotel under police protection, Ms Tsimanouskaya presented herself at the Polish embassy in Tokyo and was granted a humanitarian visa. The sprinter’s husband, Arseni Zdanevich, was also granted a Polish visa, after fleeing Belarus for Ukraine.
In the press conference, Ms Tsimanouskaya thanked people for their support during the dramatic standoff. “It was the whole world, and these people make me much stronger,” she said.
She also had a message for the people of Belarus: “I want to tell all Belarusians not to be afraid if they’re under pressure, speak out”.
While Ms Tsimanouskaya has said that she is not a political activist, and her complaint began solely against the Belarusian Olympic coaching staff, her plight has shed light on the authoritarian rule of president Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
Belarus witnessed months of protests and a brutal government crackdown following Mr Lukashenko’s re-election last August – in an election that is widely considered to have been rigged. In the backlash, some 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands of protesters were beaten.
Opposition candidates and independent media have also been targeted by the Belarusian government, most notably in the diversion of a passenger jet en route for Vilnius, Latvia in May. The aircraft, which was carrying a dissident journalist, was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, instead and the journalist was arrested.
Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main challenger to Mr Lukashenko in last year’s election, told the Associated Press that the Ms Tsimanouskaya’a case demonstrated the lengths that the government would go to in order to silence dissent.
“The message now is that even if you are not involved into opposition movement, even if you have never participated in any demonstrations, but you show your disloyalty to the regime because you do not agree with actions, you are under attack,” she said.
The sprinter has said that she hopes to return to Belarus one day, when it is safe to do so, but said that she also wanted to figure out how she might continue her running career.
“I just wanted to run at the Olympics, it was my dream,” she said at the press conference. “I still hope that these were not the last Olympics of my life.”
Earlier this week, Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy minister for foreign affairs said on Twitter that Ms Tsimanouskaya would be “free to pursue her sporting career in Poland”. She is scheduled to speak with officials on Friday to discuss her next steps.
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