On Sunday, images began circulating of Ms Tsimanouskaya refusing to board a plane at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. She was apparently being taken out of Tokyo “against her will” after criticising national coaches for the Belarus team over their preparations for the Games.
Later, the sprinter presented herself at the Polish embassy in Tokyo, where she is believed to be seeking a Polish visa. Both Poland and the Czech Republic had offered her asylum in response to treatment that the Czech foreign minister described as “scandalous”.
A representative of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation said that the visa requested by Ms Tsimanouskaya at the Polish embassy should allow her to subsequently request political asylum in the country.
While Ms Tsimanouskaya sought Polish protection, it emerged that her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, had hurriedly left Belarus for neighbouring Ukraine. He told reporters in Kiev: “I didn’t think it would get this serious. I made the decision to leave without thinking twice.”
Despite the couple’s insistence that they aren’t political and are “just normal sports people”, the fact that they have both felt the need to flee Belarus has once again put the rule of the country’s strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, under a spotlight.
Following a disputed presidential election last year – almost certainly won by the opposition – Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, has clung to power and brutally cracked down on any dissent.
Many leading opposition members have also fled Belarus, and the president has previously tried to use sport as a way of whitewashing the country’s image.
But in the context of the recent high-profile abduction of Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich while onboard a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, the latest incident illustrates the threat posed by Belarus’s repressive regime to perceived dissidents and those associated with them – even for a matter as innocuous as criticism of the national Olympic team.
Ms Tsimanouskaya had been due to run in the women’s 200m on Monday, but she was withdrawn from the competition by team officials – the head of the Belarus Olympic committee is Mr Lukashenko’s son – who cited her “emotional, psychological state” as a barrier to her participation.
The athlete posted the team statement on Instagram with the caption: “This is a lie.”
In a video message recorded on Sunday evening from the airport, she said Belarusian officials “are putting pressure on me and trying to take me out of the country without my consent”.
Her criticism of the Belarus team’s preparation was the latest humiliation at the Games for the regime of Mr Lukashenko.
The International Olympic Committee had earlier refused to recognise the election of Mr Lukashenko’s son as president of the country’s National Olympic Committee, while freezing payments to that committee following allegations made by athletes of political discrimination and imprisonment.
Mr Lukashenko, along with his son and a host of other Belarusian officials, was also barred from attending the Games in Tokyo as a result of the allegations.
Poland has long been critical of the Lukashenko government, and pushed the EU to take action following the disputed 2020 election.
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the huge protests following the vote meant that Belarusians had “shown the whole of Europe that they want to belong to a Europe of free, democratic nations under the rule of law”.
Now, Poland’s support for Ms Tsimanouskaya shows the country again ready to take a leading role in global criticism of the Lukashenko regime.
Reaction to the news from within Japan, where issues of asylum and refugee status remain contentious (less than one percent of annual refugee applications are accepted), has been softer.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kastunobu Kato, said the government “is coordinating with relevant parties and will continue to take appropriate action.” It remains to be seen what such “action” will be. Teppei Kasai, a Tokyo-based Human Rights Watch program officer, took a stronger stance.
“Japanese authorities as well as the IOC should take seriously Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s concerns and continue to offer her appropriate protection on humanitarian grounds,” he said.
Politician Taiga Ishikawa, an opposition member of the Upper House of parliament, tried to visit Tsimanouskaya at the airport precinct where she was being held on Monday morning, but police informed him that the athlete had been taken elsewhere.
Ishikawa, who is no stranger to political struggles of his own, becoming one of the first openly gay publicly elected officials in Japan, told Reuters that a police officer at the precinct declined to tell him where Tsimnouskaya had gone.
It’s now believed that she was already en route to the Polish embassy. Reporters who had stayed through the previous night couldn’t corroborate the officer’s story, however, as they had not seen Tsimanouskaya leave and received no further comment.
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